Ukraine’s coming winter looks colder after Russia targets energy supply

Civilians likely biggest losers after Russia delivers rapid knockout to nearly a third of country’s power plants

It is a grim warning. While attention has been focused on the civilian casualties and chaos caused by Russia’s renewed bombing of Kyiv and other major cities, its impact on the country’s energy supply has not been quantified until today.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced that 30% of the country’s power stations had been knocked out in just eight days, an astonishing proportion in a short amount of time with blackouts occurring in the east of the capital.

At one point Ukraine, connected to the European grid, was an energy exporter, partly because of its large nuclear power stations. But with the Zaporizhzhia plant, seized by the Russians, already shut down, the surplus, the president acknowledged earlier this month, had gone.

Now, Ukrainians need to prepare for “rolling blackouts” and people will have to conserve energy, the deputy head of the president’s office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, warned on national television on Thursday. The country needed, he added, to be prepared for “a hard winter”.

Politicians in Ukraine have been warning for months now that Russia would target the energy grid in the run up to winter, where temperatures can drop to -10C and even -20C. In some frontline areas, such as Donbas, there are already no gas supplies for heating the apartment blocks where so many live.

A member of Ukraine’s emergency services responds to a fire at an energy plant in Kyiv after Russian airstrikes.
A member of Ukraine’s emergency services responds to a fire at an energy plant in Kyiv after Russian airstrikes. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Quietly around the country there have been efforts to ensure hospitals and military sites have backup generators available. But it will not be enough for civilians and it is clear that the situation – and the bleak initial effectiveness of the Russian strategy – could make for a very difficult period.

Some experts have feared there could even be a renewed migration crisis, as people seek to leave the country in pursuit of warmth. One international aid agency, which did not want to be named, estimated there could be as many as 2m people will want to leave on top of the 7.7m who have already done so.

On Tuesday, Ukraine indicated that it believed that Russia’s new strategy was linked to an offer of peace talks by Vladimir Putin at the end of September, although that offer is seen by Kyiv as an attempt to stall the fighting to allow Russia to regroup and stabilise the frontlines until its fresh wave of conscripts arrive.

Against such concerns, it is no wonder that Britain’s foreign and defence secretaries, James Cleverly and Ben Wallace, flew to Washington to discuss, among other things, a new military aid package to Ukraine, focusing on improving air defences. Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s general secretary, said that help could come within days.

Employees prepare coffee in an unlit cafe in Lyiv.
Employees prepare coffee in an unlit cafe in Lyiv. Photograph: Yuriy Dyachyshyn/AFP/Getty Images

Although the Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones are felt to have limited use on the battlefield, and around three-quarters are being shot down, clearly enough are getting through to affect power generation. Without an urgent supply of new weapons to tackle them, problems could worsen fast.

However, ensuring the continuity of supply of electricity and warmth to the military has been a priority for Kyiv, while any frontline difficulties the Ukrainians face are likely to be shared by the Russian invaders too.

That means it is civilians – and civilian morale – that will bear the brunt, a familiar Russian strategy to prioritise psychological effects over battlefield success – although it will almost certainly take a lot more than a cold, dark winter to dampen the broad Ukrainian desire to fight against the Russian invaders.

But a Russian attempt to stoke a humanitarian crisis in the winter will also impose further costs on both Ukraine and its western supporters. The rapid success of the attacks on power stations suggest the coming months will be hard, unless an urgent military solution can be found.


Dan Sabbagh in Kyiv

The GuardianTramp

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