Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Ukraine Is on the Edge of a Complete Blackout

As winter deepens, half of the country’s energy system is already destroyed—and the other half is under threat.

By , a freelance journalist from Ireland, and , a visiting fellow at Harvard University.
Women sit in candle light in a restaurant on a dark street on Nov. 2, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Women sit in candle light in a restaurant on a dark street on Nov. 2, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Women sit in candle light in a restaurant on a dark street on Nov. 2, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Ed Ram/Getty Images

KYIV, Ukraine—In a small cafe on Kyiv’s left bank, a glass bowl perched on the counter bears the word “generator.” “It used to be the tip jar,” cafe owner Mykyta Karyi explained. “Somehow, I think this is a little more urgent.” The 27-year-old and his girlfriend are one of thousands of small-business owners struggling to keep the lights on as Russia continues to attack Ukraine’s energy supply. Karyi and his girlfriend watched the plumes of smoke from the doorstep of the cafe as Russia wiped out the energy to Kyiv’s residential left bank.

“It was a bit apocalyptic, but we’re from Kherson, so we’ve been through much worse,” he said. The couple has been in business for two months after passing through 62 checkpoints while fleeing occupied Kherson, where they owned two cafes. In their new premises in Kyiv, Karyi passes out cups of filtered coffee and tea he makes with a camping stove. “It slows things down. Ukrainians like espressos and cappuccinos, but this is all we can do now,” he said.

Ukraine’s power supply is currently being held together with Band-Aids. Targeted Russian missile strikes have destroyed much of the country’s energy infrastructure, which plunged 6 million people into blackouts that lasted for days last month. Close to 50 percent of the country’s energy facilities have already been affected by Russian attacks, and the remaining 50 percent remain under constant threat of bombardment. Air raid sirens screamed across Kyiv this week to warn of incoming missile attacks. Some cities in Ukraine have managed to maintain a so-called normal power outage schedule of 4-hour blocks of power three times per day. But in other places, such as the eastern city of Kharkiv, blackouts can last for up to 12 hours per day.

KYIV, Ukraine—In a small cafe on Kyiv’s left bank, a glass bowl perched on the counter bears the word “generator.” “It used to be the tip jar,” cafe owner Mykyta Karyi explained. “Somehow, I think this is a little more urgent.” The 27-year-old and his girlfriend are one of thousands of small-business owners struggling to keep the lights on as Russia continues to attack Ukraine’s energy supply. Karyi and his girlfriend watched the plumes of smoke from the doorstep of the cafe as Russia wiped out the energy to Kyiv’s residential left bank.

“It was a bit apocalyptic, but we’re from Kherson, so we’ve been through much worse,” he said. The couple has been in business for two months after passing through 62 checkpoints while fleeing occupied Kherson, where they owned two cafes. In their new premises in Kyiv, Karyi passes out cups of filtered coffee and tea he makes with a camping stove. “It slows things down. Ukrainians like espressos and cappuccinos, but this is all we can do now,” he said.

Ukraine’s power supply is currently being held together with Band-Aids. Targeted Russian missile strikes have destroyed much of the country’s energy infrastructure, which plunged 6 million people into blackouts that lasted for days last month. Close to 50 percent of the country’s energy facilities have already been affected by Russian attacks, and the remaining 50 percent remain under constant threat of bombardment. Air raid sirens screamed across Kyiv this week to warn of incoming missile attacks. Some cities in Ukraine have managed to maintain a so-called normal power outage schedule of 4-hour blocks of power three times per day. But in other places, such as the eastern city of Kharkiv, blackouts can last for up to 12 hours per day.

The situation is not without irony. Earlier this year, Ukraine’s diverse energy supply was seen as a key to its resilience. Ukraine’s electricity sector was seen as a potential bulwark against Russian threats to squeeze Europe during the winter by restricting gas exports to the continent. In June, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced that Ukraine would start exporting electricity to the European Union via Romania. At the time, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said she was “thrilled with Ukraine’s accomplishment, achieved while protecting their homeland, which will pave the way to what I know they can become: a clean energy powerhouse and energy exporter to the European Union.”

However, as Russian missiles continue to barrel through Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, Ukraine has become reliant on the EU for support to keep its hospitals, schools, and administration buildings afloat. The Energy Community—an organization that brings together the European Union and its neighbors to create an integrated, pan-European energy market—has stepped in to help Ukraine.

The group—in tandem with the European Commission and Ukraine’s Ministry of Energy—set up a legal framework to counteract the impact of Russia’s invasion with a newly created Ukraine Energy Support Fund. Energy infrastructure that can’t be received through donations can now be bought through the fund.

But financing is only one factor in Ukraine’s energy crisis. The large energy transformers destroyed in Russia’s attacks, which are crucial for maintaining Ukraine’s power supply, take at least six months to manufacture.

“The biggest needs at the moment are linked to the repair of high-voltage power transformers, which can be rarely found in Europe. The few that are available in Europe fall short of covering Ukraine’s needs,” said Energy Community director Artur Lorkowski. “So they will have to be manufactured, which will take a minimum of six months to 18 months, depending on their size and installed power. The transport of these transformers is also a large and complex logistical operation, consuming additional time and money.”

Meanwhile, Pavel Pavlishin, former chief of the Rivne Nuclear Power Plant, which provides 12 percent of Ukraine’s energy and 26 percent of the country’s nuclear energy, said further Russian strikes will be devastating for what’s left of the country’s energy infrastructure—including nuclear plants that pose a danger to the entire region.

“It’s a complicated picture. Rivne, for example, provides power to both the east and the west, the major centers of Kyiv and Lviv,” Pavlishin said. “Worst case scenario for Rivne is if the plant does not receive the required energy, then we can’t continue cooling the plant. We have gas-powered generators to pump water if this happens, but this is only for 10 days. After this period, the plant is in serious danger.”

Most people in Ukraine’s energy sector do not believe Russia would try to attack or seize any nuclear plants without ensuring it has access to energy to continue cooling. A government insider speaking on the condition of anonymity said: “Russia isn’t that stupid. They set up this infrastructure and know how it works. When they took Zaporizhzhia [nuclear power plant], they connected it to the Russia power grid. Annex the plants, yes, and starve Europe of a potential power supply, but they’re not stupid.”

As winter temperatures steadily creep into the minus figures, Ukrainians struggle to survive. Anhelina, a 24-year-old from the Kyiv region, said she decided to move back into her parents’ home outside of Kyiv because living in her high-rise apartment building was no longer an option.

“It’s definitely more difficult to live in a tall apartment complex than in my parents’ house. They have a fireplace. They have gas that still works. In many places in Ukraine, gas no longer works. I feel really privileged that I have the option to do this sort of ‘off the grid’ living,” she said. “For people on the 20th floor like I was, it was really tough. The water is barely there. You can fill a bucket to wash, but the higher you get in a building, the less water pressure you get. People queue at the water shops and then try to bring the water up the elevators when we have power, but then you risk getting stuck in the elevator for four to eight hours when the power cuts.”

As Anhelina struggles to continue her day-to-day life, gloomy predictions by Kyiv’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko, present a bleak future. The mayor recently warned citizens to ensure they had enough water, clothing, and foodstuffs to survive winter conditions. He encouraged those who can leave the city to go.

For people like Karyi, however, returning home isn’t an option. The brief respite from darkness—Kherson residents had no power for several months—came to an abrupt end due to Russian shelling. “In Kherson, Russians tried to get us to take Russian documents to open our cafes. I was not going to do that, so we closed and hid our equipment so they wouldn’t steal it,” she said. “Here, every strike means less electricity, more darkness. But at least it’s life without Russians. For that, I’m happy.”

Norma Costello is a freelance journalist from Ireland. Twitter: @normcos

Vera Mironova is a visiting fellow at Harvard University. Twitter: @vera_mironov

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