How Russia is arming the Ukrainian winter

IZIUM, Ukraine – The gas pipeline was punctured by splinters. Plastic sheeting now hangs where the windows used to be. A single electric heat lamp is enough to keep the house from freezing.

Halyna Zahorodnikh, 71, wears layers of fleece around the apartment to stay warm.

She is one of millions of Ukrainians facing a winter essentially armed against them.

Russia’s systematic and repeated attacks on Ukraine’s energy and heating infrastructure – the latest of which included the most severe missile strikes in a nearly nine-month war – have led to regular power outages in some of the country’s largest cities.

In smaller towns like Izium, where Zahorodnikh has lived all her life, power is cut and constantly threatened by the kind of long-range missile and drone strikes that have become common in the last two months of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Almost half of the country’s energy system has been shut down after last week’s widespread attacks, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said at a meeting with the European Commission on Friday. “Russia is trying to compensate for losses on the battlefield with missile attacks on civilian critical infrastructure,” he said.

The Ministry of Energy of Ukraine is trying to repair the damaged infrastructure as soon as possible.

“Russia is trying to destroy all energy supply chains. Generating plants – particularly thermal power plants – distribution systems and power lines,” the Department of Energy said in a written statement to NPR ahead of the recent attacks.

The attacks have prompted residents and businesses to search for gas-powered generators and firewood. Charitable aid agencies, the United Nations and Western allies have begun including winter clothing, thick blankets and heaters in shipments to the country.

“Should there be widespread outages for an extended period of time, we simply don’t have the resources to get people in need the help they need,” said Marysia Zapasnik, director of the International Rescue Committee for Ukraine. “The humanitarian situation will be much worse than it is now.”

The electric heat lamp that warms Zahorodnikh’s living room was donated to her by a charity. Donated blankets line her bed. She wants to stay over the winter.

And if she loses power?

“I don’t know,” she says with a stubborn smile. “Maybe I’ll burn my books.”

Russia targets Ukraine’s ability to transport energy

Russia has attacked Ukraine’s heating and electrical infrastructure since the start of its nearly nine-month invasion.

Back in June, Ukraine’s Energy Minister German Galushchenko told NPR that Russia plans to arm the coming heating season with attacks on energy resources and facilities.

Many of Russia’s early strikes, Galushchenko said, targeted power generation sources – coal-fired and gas-fired power plants. Russia also continues to occupy Ukraine’s – and all of Europe’s – largest nuclear power plant in the south of the country. Ukraine gets about 60% of its energy from nuclear power plants.

By the end of October, according to the Department of Energy, Russian attacks have damaged about 40% of the country’s thermal generation. Ninety percent of its wind power and more than 40 percent of its solar power sources were either occupied or damaged.

Many of the recent Russian attacks have targeted distribution systems, says DTEK, Ukraine’s largest private power producer.

“These actions cannot be otherwise characterized as energy terrorism and a brutal attempt to create a humanitarian catastrophe in the heart of Europe,” DTEK said in a statement.

Attacks on substations and transformers limit Ukraine’s ability to transport energy and also its ability to import energy from Europe. They are also more difficult targets to defend against long-range attacks, says Oleksandr Kharchenko, the director of the Kyiv Energy Research Center.

“I believe that Ukraine has had enough [electrical] Generation capacity,” says Kharchenko. “Generation capacity has been better defended since the beginning of this war. But substations – there are many of them. It is not possible to cover each of them with special air defenses [systems].”

Ukraine rushes to repair its power grid

In a small village east of Kharkiv, where the sounds of artillery and tanks can still be heard like distant thunder, Mykhailo Voinov opens the metal door of a damaged substation. A thumb-sized gash from shrapnel defaces the door.

Voinov is an electrician who repairs damaged Ukrainian power infrastructure.

“There’s a lot of shrapnel damage, but this is the worst,” he says, reaching into the substation and tapping on its main component, a ribbed, cylindrical transformer. It’s empty, he emphasizes. The oil from it flowed out of the splitter through a hole.

That one substation will cost thousands of dollars to fix, Voinov says. Transformers, lines and other substation components are in short supply. His team often has to wait weeks for equipment before they can make repairs, he says.

“Repair teams work around the clock, with no days off, to minimize the duration of emergency power outages,” says Ukraine’s Energy Ministry. Nonetheless, authorities are urging residents to conserve electricity as much of the population prepares for a long winter with regular power outages.

Voinov is among them. In a small village where his family owns a dacha, a summer house, the electricity is said to be out for months. Only a few residents remained, including Oleksandr Lysytskyi and his wife Svitalana Maliarova.

A crater from a Russian artillery shell that landed in their yard is filled with broken glass. They buried one of their dogs in another, says Lysytskyi.

Since Russian troops drove out of the area in mid-September, Lysytskyi has been trying to prepare his home for the coming winter, Lysytskyi says. They nail broken windows with plywood or cover them with plastic sheeting provided by the United Nations.

A wood boiler provides his home with heat. He collected the wood, he says quietly, in the mined forest behind their house.

Lysytskyi and his family stayed in this small village throughout the Russian occupation. They will stay, he says, until the approaching winter.

Millions of Ukrainians are expected to use firewood to heat their homes

Wood-burning stoves and boilers, like the kind Lysytskyi relies on, are in high demand throughout Ukraine. They’re so hard to buy now that Territorial Defense units have taken to welding furnaces out of sheet metal for soldiers who will spend the winter in front-line positions.

Increasing reliance on firewood has raised concerns among some environmental groups in Ukraine. Deforestation of the country’s rich forested areas was a problem even before the large-scale invasion of Russia. Last year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy launched a Green Country Project aimed at reforesting parts of the country with one million trees.

Since the Russian invasion, Ukraine’s environment ministry has warned the public and made it clear that illegal logging will result in fines.

The need to protect undamaged forests is paramount, says Environment Minister Ruslan Strilets. “Because of the trenches, the explosions and the fires,” he says. “A third of Ukraine’s forests have been damaged by the war.”

Strilets believes illegal logging in winter will not be a major problem for the country — in part because the government has expanded a program to supply civilians with firewood to meet increased demand.

The state program gives residents the ability to purchase up to about 530 cubic feet of firewood for the upcoming heating season. The government has more than doubled the amount of wood available for purchase, Strilets says, in anticipation of increased demand.

However, logistical problems have to be overcome. Civilians must be able to afford firewood – a problem with the increased cost of basic necessities such as food and medicine. There are also concerns about delivery – how firewood is transported to hard-hit places like Izium.

Bridges, roads and railways have been damaged across Ukraine and many people are unwilling to go through the bureaucratic process of buying and delivering timber, says a resident of Izium in Ukraine’s far north-east. He prefers not to give his name because he collects wood illegally for neighbors.

The man, a writer before the war, organizes other men to bring firewood to the residents of the badly damaged city. He collected it from a burnt and torn up piece of forest that the Russians had used as an ammunition dump west of the city before they were driven out.

“These trees are being felled,” he says, standing between spent Russian artillery shells. “The government will hire people and pay for it, but so far they haven’t decided what to do and we have an opportunity to cut down this wood for people who need it and bring it to them.”

The work is dangerous. Duds lie on the ground. Jagged metal is buried in the soft earth. A local official told NPR it would take years to demolish the woodland where residents like the lumberjack collected mushrooms.

When asked if he’s worried about being fined or stepping on explosives, the lumberjack laughs.

“I think freezing temperatures are scarier than forestry.”

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