Dispatch

Ukraine Battles On in the Dark

Russia’s terror campaign against Ukraine’s power plants is cutting off the lights—and energizing resistance.

Volunteers work without electricity in Dnipro.
Volunteers work without electricity in Dnipro.
Volunteers work without electricity at their coordinating headquarters in Dnipro, Ukraine, on Nov. 23. Emre Caylak Photos for Foreign Policy
By , a journalist based in Ukraine covering the human cost of the war.

DNIPRO, Ukraine—Huddled around the bluish glow of a battery-powered lantern, aid coordinators at the main volunteer headquarters in Dnipro gather in a chilly side room to discuss their biggest challenge since Russia’s invasion nine months ago: How can they continue to provide much-needed aid to thousands of people when they can’t even turn the lights on?

Dnipro, a relative safe haven between the Donbas and western Ukraine close to areas under Russian occupation, has become a vital humanitarian hub since the full-scale war broke out in February. It is a conduit for goods distribution, a shelter for those fleeing the worst of the fighting, and a spot for soldiers to have some rest and relaxation. Yet the city, plunged into darkness as the country suffers its largest and most widespread power outages so far, must now prepare for what could be a brutal winter.

Russia has moved to weaponize Ukraine’s cold winter by targeting power and heat supplies in a deliberate attempt to terrorize the population. Hundreds of Russian missiles have been fired at Ukrainian power plants and other key infrastructure installations in recent weeks (and not all have been intercepted), leaving many people in the dark and cold. Russian propagandists boast on television about freezing their neighbors. In an interview with the BBC on Sunday, Andriy Kostin, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, said the attacks on infrastructure amount to genocide.

DNIPRO, Ukraine—Huddled around the bluish glow of a battery-powered lantern, aid coordinators at the main volunteer headquarters in Dnipro gather in a chilly side room to discuss their biggest challenge since Russia’s invasion nine months ago: How can they continue to provide much-needed aid to thousands of people when they can’t even turn the lights on?

Dnipro, a relative safe haven between the Donbas and western Ukraine close to areas under Russian occupation, has become a vital humanitarian hub since the full-scale war broke out in February. It is a conduit for goods distribution, a shelter for those fleeing the worst of the fighting, and a spot for soldiers to have some rest and relaxation. Yet the city, plunged into darkness as the country suffers its largest and most widespread power outages so far, must now prepare for what could be a brutal winter.

Russia has moved to weaponize Ukraine’s cold winter by targeting power and heat supplies in a deliberate attempt to terrorize the population. Hundreds of Russian missiles have been fired at Ukrainian power plants and other key infrastructure installations in recent weeks (and not all have been intercepted), leaving many people in the dark and cold. Russian propagandists boast on television about freezing their neighbors. In an interview with the BBC on Sunday, Andriy Kostin, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, said the attacks on infrastructure amount to genocide.

The coordination meeting begins with the national anthem—“for mental strength,” one volunteer told Foreign Policy. Outside, little is visible of the city other than the gleam of car lights. The power cuts also take out the internet and water, meaning there is no heating and after a few hours, the residual heat begins to dissipate. A single space heater is the only source of warmth.

“We understand that there will be a lot of time this winter with no electricity, and we are trying to get used to it,” said volunteer media coordinator Liudmyla Cherkez. “We have stocked up with a lot of water and power banks. We have some generators but not enough. It is a problem, but nothing we can’t solve.”

A team of human rights volunteers is constantly trying to find generators. It has already raised funds for almost 30 generators, but most of them are sent to the military or displacement shelters. Increased demand means prices have shot up fivefold, and limited stocks mean the team now has to spend a lot of time trying to locate them in Europe.

Residents make a long line for buses after the city lost power in Dnipro, Ukraine.
Residents make a long line for buses after the city lost power in Dnipro, Ukraine.

Residents make a long line for buses after the city lost power in Dnipro on Nov. 23.

No power means no laptops to organize the paperwork needed to track deliveries and collections. It means barely any internet other than patchy 4G and no elevators to help move stock, forcing warehouse workers up and down the stairs with heavy boxes. It means food donations are left to rot in refrigerators and important documents must be checked by candlelight. It’s a harsh reality that could be Ukraine’s new normal.

On Wednesday, a barrage of missiles hit power plants and residential areas, killing at least six people in Kyiv, the capital, and triggering emergency power cuts across most of the country and neighboring Moldova. According to private energy firm DTEK—which serves four major regions, including Dnipropetrovsk and Kyiv—70 percent of the capital’s residents were cut off from power supplies as a result of the attacks, although restoration efforts had it down to a quarter by the following day.

The attack was the latest in six weeks of strikes targeting energy supplies, seen by Kyiv as an attempt to break national resolve following a string of humiliating battlefield defeats for Moscow, including a retreat from the Kharkiv region and the city of Kherson. Yet Ukraine is determined to maintain a public face of resistance, with officials and civilians taking to social media to echo the same message: that they would rather live in the dark than live under Russia’s control.

“We are not scared,” said Dnipro volunteer Bohdan Peschanscky, 22. “That was for the first month of the war when no one knew what to expect. Ukrainians are ready to deal with this situation. We continue to face this war to fight for our independence.”

Residents crowd onto a bus amid a power outage in Dnipro, Ukraine.
Residents crowd onto a bus amid a power outage in Dnipro, Ukraine.

Residents crowd onto a bus amid a power outage in Dnipro on Nov. 23.

Headlights illuminate a darkened residential block left without power after a Russian strike in Dnipro, Ukraine.
Headlights illuminate a darkened residential block left without power after a Russian strike in Dnipro, Ukraine.

Headlights illuminate a darkened residential block left without power after a Russian strike in Dnipro on Nov. 23.

Despite the sentiment of resistance, things are likely to get worse. One private energy firm, Yasno, has predicted the cuts could continue until mid-March, and authorities say almost half of the country’s power infrastructure has already been damaged by the attacks. Ukraine’s energy system could be close to collapse. Heavy rain and frost are further hampering repair work.

DTEK, which supplies Dnipro alongside state energy provider Ukrenergo, said it is making an “all-out effort” to restore damaged facilities, but its biggest challenge is equipment shortages. Spokesperson Antonina Antosha said DTEK needs help from international partners in the form of supplies of mobile and complete transformer substations, different varieties of circuit breakers, power and current transformers, cables, insulators, and capacitors. The European Union agreed at an October summit to increase humanitarian support for Ukraine this winter, including for critical infrastructure, while the European Commission has been working with member states to channel equipment donations. French President Emmanuel Macron announced a donor meeting for Dec. 13, but that could come too late if the system continues to sustain damage.

It is not the first blackout to hit Dnipro, although most have been scheduled shutdowns designed to ease the strain on the grid. Residents have been preparing as best as they can by buying rechargeable power packs, battery heaters, and flashlights. Street lights and shop signs have been turned off at 7 p.m. for weeks, leaving the streets in unsettling darkness.

A woman looks at her phone during the blackout in Dnipro, Ukraine.
A woman looks at her phone during the blackout in Dnipro, Ukraine.

A woman looks at her phone during the blackout in Dnipro on Nov. 10.

Those in private houses rather than apartments away from the city center are stocking up on wood to burn over the winter, but prices have shot up by two or three times and it is illegal to chop down trees. There is now little to no supply of coal as it is usually supplied from mines in the Donbas, with much of the eastern region now either occupied or hampered by heavy fighting.

Last week, Odesa, a port city vital to Ukraine’s agricultural exports, was left without electricity or internet for days, forcing many of its shops to close. However, with a number of restaurants and bars having generators, they saw booming business, offering reduced menus to an upbeat clientele.

Elsewhere, the picture is similar or worse, with the first snow starting to fall in a country where temperatures can drop below 20 degrees Celsius. The World Health Organization warned this week that the lives of millions of people could be in danger, and Ukraine’s neighboring countries have made preparations for more refugees to head to their borders. Dnipro’s volunteers said they have stepped up evacuation efforts while the government has advised residents of the southern regions of Kherson and Mykolaiv to move to safer areas due to fears that the winter will be too much to endure this year.

A man walks with a torch during the blackout in Kherson, Ukraine.
A man walks with a torch during the blackout in Kherson, Ukraine.

A man walks with a flashlight during the blackout in Kherson, Ukraine, on Nov. 15.

Few people will face conditions as hostile as those found in the heavily war-shattered Donbas, however, with many of those who remain elderly, disabled, or sick. People there have already spent months without basic utilities, cooking outside on open flames and spending much of their time hiding in basements. In March, people fleeing the besieged city of Mariupol talked of older adults who had frozen to death in their apartments, the bomb-smashed windows unable to keep the cold out.

“It will be very hard. It will be uncomfortable,” Peschanscky said. “But no matter if we lose power for one day or two months, Russia cannot break us.”

Liz Cookman is a journalist based in Ukraine covering the human cost of the war. Twitter: @Liz_Cookman

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