As winter approaches in Ukraine, Alla Melnychuk and her neighbors race against time to save what little they have left.
Their apartment building in Irpin was hit during some of the heaviest fighting in March. Most of the windows are still shattered, the roof is gone and the sewer shafts have burned down, meaning there is no water supply and no sewer drain. Heavy rain in September caused even more damage, but Melnychuk is determined to continue with the repairs. “I still plan to spend the winter in Irpin,” she told CNN.
Melnychuk, her husband and their cat Murchyk are now renting a temporary apartment in Kiev, but they hope to return to Irpin, the once quiet, leafy suburb of the capital that became the frontline during Russia’s attempt to overthrow Ukraine’s leadership in the spring off. “We’re late, we’re slowly renovating, we’ve bought wood and we’re installing the roof, but I don’t even think about the option of not having it finished before winter,” she said.
As the weather gets colder, millions of Ukrainians like Melnychuk are trying to prepare for what they know will be an extremely difficult winter, rushing to fix their homes and get enough fuel to keep warm. The Ukrainian government said in July that more than 800,000 houses had been damaged or destroyed since the war started in February, leaving thousands of people without a roof.
Those problems have been exacerbated in recent weeks by the Russian barrage of attacks on Ukraine’s electricity and heating infrastructure.
According to the International Energy Agency, Ukraine’s electricity demand has fallen by about 40% since the Russian invasion, yet the government is preparing people for a rough winter ahead.
Ukraine’s energy agency said it had to implement “serious” and “unprecedented” emergency power cuts in Kiev to avoid a “complete power outage” as the capital faces a 30% power shortage. It has urged residents to use electricity ‘sparingly’, especially in the mornings and evenings, while asking businesses to turn off the lights outside offices, restaurants and shopping centers.
The blackouts are unpredictable, meaning people have to be on standby at all times. Computers and phones are charged whenever the opportunity arises. Some elevators in the city’s many high-rise residential buildings are equipped with emergency supply boxes containing water, snacks, sanitary wipes, medicines and bags for waste and toilet emergencies.
Driving through the city has become more dangerous during the power outage; traffic accidents have increased by 25%, according to the police. Stores close when they run out of power, and some restaurants have started advertising “blackout” menus of food and drinks that they can serve while slicing. Workers take to the streets and smoke when a power outage results in an unexpected interruption.
To help people heat their homes, the Ukrainian government has launched a new online firewood store that makes it easier for people to find local suppliers. Photos are circulating on social media of people trying to heat food with candles.
Earlier this week, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk advised Ukrainian refugees not to return home this winter as the country’s fragile electricity grid risks being completely overwhelmed.
The head of the perinatal center at a hospital in Kharkiv, Iryna Kondratova, told CNN she constantly thinks about the risk of a sudden blackout. Her hospital has worked hard to secure medical equipment with autonomous power, because relying on generators is too risky.
“It can take about 15 to 20 minutes from the time the electricity is turned off and before it appears from the generator. What should we do for 15-20 minutes if the child is not breathing?” she explained.
There are other things to think about. Due to the constant Russian attacks on the electricity grid, the supply is unpredictable. “The equipment we work with in neonatal and pediatric intensive care units is affected by even small voltage fluctuations. The worst is when the voltage in the network rises critically, because then the equipment can fail. In the event of voltage drops, the equipment can also be turned off,” she said.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the winter will add “significant challenges” to an already difficult life in Ukraine. “Too many people in Ukraine live precariously, moving from location to location, living in substandard structures or having no access to heating. This can lead to frostbite, hypothermia, pneumonia, stroke and heart attack,” WHO’s regional director for Europe, Dr Hans Henri Kluge, said in a statement earlier this month.
At a shutdown coal plant that CNN visited this week, technicians worked around the clock on repairs after Russia twice attacked the most sensitive part of the facility in the past three weeks.
Blown out windows were replaced with steel and rubber plates. Workers dangled from power lines and reconnected vital wiring as technicians rummaged through burned-out wreckage for serviceable parts.
The engineers work around the clock, but their efforts are constantly interrupted by air raid sirens. No one knows how long it will take to get the plant back online, but every minute spent in the plant bunker is wasted time.
One of the engineers told CNN that nothing would stop him and his teams from getting the plant back up and running. CNN can’t name him or the power plant for security reasons.
“Putin’s game plan is obvious: he wants to make this winter the coldest and darkest in Ukraine’s history,” Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, told CNN. “He will continue to attack infrastructure networks to cut off Ukraine’s power and heat. His kamikaze drone attacks are intended to break the will of the Ukrainian people and cause panic,” she added.
While many Ukrainians fear winter, military analysts say the colder weather could present a major opportunity for the Ukrainian military.
“What’s important to know about the fighting in Ukraine is that it was historically seasonal,” George Barros, an analyst and the geospatial team leader at the Institute for the Study of War, told CNN. “We would normally see an intensification of the fighting during the winter and therefore we expect an overall increase in the pace of the fighting this winter,” he added.
Much of the ground fighting takes place in eastern Ukraine, over vast farmlands, swamps and swamps. As the ground freezes, it gets harder, making it easier to maneuver heavy military machinery and armor.
Once the spring thaw begins, the ground becomes soft, flooded and muddy. The Russians call this period, when road travel becomes more difficult, ‘rasputitsa’ or ‘general mud’.
“The time for the Ukrainian counter-offensive is now underway. It’s been since August. It’s still ongoing. And it will likely continue and intensify in the winter. I expect that by the time we reach the spring, we will probably see the operational hiatus. We get the thaw at the end of February on the way to March. That’s when the mud season starts,” Barros said.
Another reason for Ukraine to step up its counter-offensive is the state of the Russian military, which has been severely depleted over the past eight months.
“The main conclusion is that there are no pristine Russian military units that can fight in Ukraine because they already have and they are all downgraded,” Barros said, adding that Putin’s drive to mobilize more fighters would not be as helpful . .
“Bringing in all these men won’t really generate effective combat power because they’re not being trained enough and not adequately supplied,” Haring said. “There are credible reports that new Russian troops have no food or blankets. Imagine what happens when winter really hits,” she said.
The frigid conditions are tough on both sides, of course, but experts say the Ukrainians have a psychological advantage: an army of volunteers trying to help where they can, sending warm clothes, making supplies and even making equipment.
Vadym Osadchy is one such volunteer. When he and his brothers inherited a small metalworking shop in Kiev, they had no idea what to do with it. As winter approached, they started making small stoves for soldiers on the front lines with their own money and money and materials donated by friends. “We have small volumes, this is not a factory. If we try really hard, we can make 40 to 50 such stoves a month,” he said. “Yet these 40-50 heaters mean 500 hundred soldiers will stay warm in the winter, or maybe even more,” he said.
The small makeshift production line is constantly trying to improve their product. The last improvement: adding special closures to the heaters so that the soldiers can dry their clothes.