U.S. Struggles to Help Ukraine Keep the Lights On

Ukraine needs heaters as much as HIMARS.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Pedestrians cross a street during a power cut in downtown Kyiv amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Pedestrians cross a street during a power cut in downtown Kyiv amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Pedestrians cross a street during a power cut in downtown Kyiv amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Nov. 10. Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

Kyiv hasn’t been its usual self for weeks. For half of the day, the Ukrainian capital, known for its cafes, bustling nightlife, and crowded cocktail dens even through a pandemic and more than eight months of a full-scale Russian invasion, is plunged into darkness, mostly disappearing from view except for millions of little flickers of candlelight.  

Russia, which has been repeatedly beaten on the battlefield, has resorted to knocking out Ukrainian power and heat ahead of the winter. Russian missile strikes and drone attacks have shuttered close to 40 percent of the country’s power plants. 

The first shock has been economic. Ukraine’s government fears the economy could shrink by one-third. “Some businesses in Kyiv are panicking like crazy,” said Tymofiy Mylovanov, an advisor to the Zelensky administration. “People who have been in Kyiv, who have stayed in Kyiv, who have thousands of employees, are worried that one more attack will be a week without electricity.” 

Kyiv hasn’t been its usual self for weeks. For half of the day, the Ukrainian capital, known for its cafes, bustling nightlife, and crowded cocktail dens even through a pandemic and more than eight months of a full-scale Russian invasion, is plunged into darkness, mostly disappearing from view except for millions of little flickers of candlelight.  

Russia, which has been repeatedly beaten on the battlefield, has resorted to knocking out Ukrainian power and heat ahead of the winter. Russian missile strikes and drone attacks have shuttered close to 40 percent of the country’s power plants. 

The first shock has been economic. Ukraine’s government fears the economy could shrink by one-third. “Some businesses in Kyiv are panicking like crazy,” said Tymofiy Mylovanov, an advisor to the Zelensky administration. “People who have been in Kyiv, who have stayed in Kyiv, who have thousands of employees, are worried that one more attack will be a week without electricity.” 

The Kyiv School of Economics—where Mylovanov, a former Ukrainian economy minister, is president—has set up makeshift shelters that officials are calling “warming centers,” small rooms outfitted for emergency heating. But the makeshift effort isn’t enough to get the city of 3 million people through the winter. “We’re talking about, you know, 20 people, 50 people, a hundred people,” he said. “We’re not talking about thousands of people.” And the blackouts don’t just mean Ukrainians are reading by candlelight. They have left millions of people without water, sewage, and hot food, including children and the elderly. 

Temperatures are already hovering at or below freezing during Kyiv nights in November. Russia’s missile strikes against the Ukrainian power grid have knocked out power to major cities—not including the massive Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant that has been offline for months. The increasingly dire situation has set off a mad dash in Western capitals to stave off a further humanitarian crisis in the freezing cold. 

Ukraine still has the ability to generate enough electricity to meet people’s needs, because demand has dropped dramatically since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February. But Russia’s campaign of strikes has decimated Ukraine’s ability to transfer high-voltage power that runs through power lines to lower voltages that can be used by consumers. That has also limited the ability to import energy from other regions to deal with the problem. 

On Capitol Hill, current and former Ukrainian officials are telling anyone who will listen that they are in desperate need of transformers, massive electromagnetic devices that transfer power between circuits in power stations and on railways. “It’s high-voltage transformers that are mostly needed,” said Victoria Voytsitska, a former Ukrainian parliamentarian who has been leading the lobbying effort. “And in Ukraine, unfortunately, we only have one manufacturer who is capable of producing a maximum of three transformers every six months. We need tons of them already at this stage after two waves of major attacks on our critical infrastructure.”

But there’s no quick fix on the way for the transformers, leaving U.S. and Ukrainian officials to work overtime to stave off a mass exodus, like the lines of cars out of Kyiv that preceded Russia’s full-scale invasion. “The blackouts will be there for quite a long time until we have new transformers,” Voytsitska added. On the request list are mobile and secondary substations and power switches as well.  

Ukraine is also in need of spare parts, boilers, and stoves, and Ukrainian officials are trying to find space heaters that can heat destroyed rooms, homes, and school gymnasiums, where internally displaced people have been forced to hide from Russian bombings, to set up more makeshift warming centers. The effort is extending to major Ukrainian cities, including Kyiv, Kharkiv, Dnipro, and Zhytomyr. In Washington, Ukrainian allies are trying to push the message to the Swiss and British governments, too. 

It’s not clear how far the requests, which have gone to both the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), have proceeded. Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder told reporters on Tuesday that the Biden administration was discussing providing generators, water purification systems, heaters, and other winterization aid. USAID has pushed through about $271 million in winterization aid to Ukraine so far, about a fifth of which is specifically earmarked for Kyiv. 

But the difficulty in obtaining the aid has spoken to the Biden administration’s troubles stocking in-kind assistance to Ukraine that date back to the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country in February, which has led to growing frustration in Kyiv and in Washington, even as the United States has sent enormous amounts of military aid to Ukraine since the beginning of the summer.

“They got caught a little flat-footed on this,” said a senior congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity to speak candidly about ongoing policy talks. “In fairness, the attacks on energy infrastructure have escalated lately, so the need is growing more acute very quickly, whereas before, the energy grid was pretty much intact.” Even months into the war, State Department reports showed that U.S. government plans were focused intently on reforming the Ukrainian energy sector, a prewar mandate, offering few details about U.S. efforts to prepare for winter. 

Current and former Ukrainian officials believe that the plans to strike at Ukraine’s energy grid come directly from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle in the Kremlin. They have pointed to Sergey Kiriyenko, a deputy chief of staff to Putin who once headed up Russia’s Rosatom state nuclear energy corporation, as having a hand in the attacks.

The failure on the U.S. side to stock in-kind assistance, including food, to help Ukrainians survive the subzero winter has also caused problems as Kyiv has recaptured wide swaths of territory once occupied by Russian troops in the eastern Kharkiv region and in the south. And the requests have also proven a challenge to the Biden administration and nongovernmental organizations that are mostly used to handling pleas for help in warmer areas. “They need raw material,” the senior congressional aide added. “They need generators, they need fuel, they need supplies to keep warm this winter. So there’s a bit of a scramble going on to provide it.” 

The major need isn’t for money, Ukrainian officials said, but for goods. They have pressed U.S. officials and lawmakers to use money authorized by Congress’s new Lend-Lease bill, passed earlier this year, for emergency supplementary money to source the equipment as in-kind assistance to Ukraine. Voytsitska is pushing for at least 15 new transformers to help alleviate the stress that Russia has put on the Ukrainian grid. Ukrainian officials are also asking for shunt reactors, used to absorb high voltage, and circuit breakers. But some are still concerned that the plan won’t work. 

“It’s a huge problem to get those transformers, because even if you get them from Europe and the United States, they will not fit our system,” said Volodymyr Omelyan, Ukraine’s former minister of infrastructure. Worse yet, the remaining Ukrainian transformers are not well protected, he said, even with simple earthworks to shield them from blasts. And missile defenses are in scarce supply. The United States has so far only provided two National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems that are coproduced with Norway to defend energy infrastructure over the whole country. 

There is a will and readiness to help, Ukrainian officials said, even if the aid is not coming fast enough. But although Ukraine has the equivalent of a multinational hotline to source military aid in the form of a repurposed classroom on a U.S. base in Stuttgart, Germany, and 30-nation defense meetings that take place on a near-monthly basis, there’s no such 411 for the desperately needed economic and energy assistance. Voytsitska and Ukrainian officials have proposed setting up a special task force at the Ukrainian government level that will collect information about the damage caused by the Russian strikes 24 hours a day and provide USAID, the State Department, and European governments with their needs. 

“Their military guys know what the sense of urgency is,” said Mylovanov, the Ukrainian official and academic. “When it comes to the rest, the answer is just, ‘Oh, you know, we’re on a different schedule.’”

It has also presented a funding challenge for the Biden administration, which is trying to negotiate a new $50 billion aid package for Ukraine that could be finalized during the so-called lame-duck session of Congress that will follow this week’s midterm elections. The $12 billion Ukraine aid package passed by Congress in September as part of a deal to avoid a U.S. government shutdown only covers direct budgetary assistance and military aid to Kyiv. But temperatures are already dropping across Ukraine, and with periodic outages, including in Kyiv, the demand is increasing, and the United States has likely drained economic support funds that have been used for energy.

“There is anxiety about additional budget support, and that’s where Congress doesn’t really want to do more,” said Melinda Haring, the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. “It’s pensions, it’s salaries for teachers and doctors. It’s money to keep the railways going and to keep the state alive. That’s all it is.”

The Biden administration “[hasn’t] communicated the seriousness of the crisis and why Americans should sacrifice,” Haring added. 

European governments have also joined the scramble to try to outfit Kyiv with proper winter gear. Speaking to reporters during a visit to Washington last month, Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur said that Ukraine’s winterization needs had shot up the list of foreign aid requests. “[It’s] not only weaponry, but during the wintertime, do they have clothing, do they have tents, do they have the generators, heaters to be on the battlefield, to be ready to go,” Pevkur said. And the Swiss government is also expected to authorize a winter package soon. 

But Ukrainians are worried that everything is coming too little, too late. The country is saddled with grim memories of the siege of the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv in February, when many froze to death with no heating or electricity. 

“We’ve got reports from the state that everything is under control and everything is ready for any kind of catastrophe or grid blackout,” said Omelyan. “But in reality, though, I’m a former bureaucrat, and I know it’s my job to say that everything is under control and everything is ready to meet every challenge. In reality, I think it’s not enough.”

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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