Russia strikes, Ukraine repairs to survive the winter

Kyiv, Ukraine — When Ukrainian soldier Viktor Ganich was given a short leave of absence from his military unit, he went to his mother and stepfather’s home in Kyiv.

Then came a Early morning barrage of Russian drone strikes on the city.
A drone crashed into the apartment where Ganich lived. He survived. His mother and stepfather were killed.

“Honestly, it’s a very strange feeling,” Ganich said. “Because I’ve had gunfire over my head, tank fire, mortar fire on the front line and I survived. And when I came here to Kyiv, it’s weird because it just feels like it’s destiny.”

Russia has dramatically increased its airstrikes over the past month with waves of drones and missiles.

In the latest lockdown, Russia fired 70 cruise missiles on Wednesday. As a result, electricity, heating and water failed in many cities and the already vulnerable energy system was further damaged. These basic services returned steadily on Thursday and Friday.

Ukraine said it shot down 50 of the 70 missiles on Wednesday. The number could not be independently confirmed. But it aligns with other recent claims by Ukraine that say it typically puts out two-thirds to three-quarters of incoming fire.

But the Russian weapons, hitting their targets, do serious damage.

A need for more air defense

“Ukraine does not have enough firepower to be fully shielded from the sky. Therefore, we ask the whole world to help Ukraine by any means,” said Colonel Yurii Ihnat, spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force.

Ukraine’s limited air defenses are designed to protect key military and government sites. But recent, more widespread Russian attacks have left Ukraine unable to protect all potential targets in the energy sector.

Ukraine says most of the country’s power plants and substations have been hit and damaged since Russia’s intensified air campaign began on October 10.

The consequences are initially rolling power outages, which usually last around four hours at a time. The more ominous prospect is extended power outages during the coldest winter days.

“I think Ukraine faces a real challenge from a concerted Russian strike campaign focused on the power grid,” said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military at CNA, a research group based near Washington.

“I think it takes a toll over time. Ukraine is currently able to handle power outages. And most Ukrainian cities I’ve seen enact electricity savings. They’re pretty dark at night even though they have electricity,” he added.

Drones represent a new type of threat

Ukraine has been fighting with Russian ballistic missiles and cruise missiles since the beginning of the war.

Now Russia is also firing swarms of noisy, low-flying, slow-moving drones acquired from Iran. This has further complicated Ukraine’s air defenses.

“Drones can loiter, which is different from a missile, and then decide to drop a bomb and explode on impact,” said Kelly Grieco of the Stimson Center, a think tank in Washington.

She says that all of these Russian weapons require different countermeasures.

“I don’t think there are probably enough air defense systems in the world to create the kind of impenetrable barrier that we want now,” she said.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently announced the arrival of new western air defenses. This includes a US contribution called NASAMS, which protects the White House and other government buildings in Washington.

That certainly helps, says Michael Kofman. But the integration of different weapon systems is difficult. He noted that Ukraine now manages 14 separate artillery systems, including many sent from the west this year.

“The problem is that when they get a couple of air defense systems and they each have a couple of batteries, it creates ongoing maintenance, operational and training challenges,” Kofman said.

These challenges play out daily. A Russian missile recently crashed to the third floor of an apartment building in central Kyiv, killing an elderly woman.

The electricity went out in the neighborhood. On the dark streets, I asked a young man, Vladimir Yanachuk, if Ukrainians were ready for this winter.

“Ukrainians are not afraid. The winter will be hard. But this winter will be tough, not only for Ukrainians but also for Russian soldiers,” he said.

As we spoke, lights in the surrounding apartment buildings suddenly came alive. At least that night there would be electricity and heat.

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent currently based in Ukraine. follow him @gregmyre1.

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