Ukraine readies for cold, dangerous chapter in Russian war

Snowfall across Ukraine is signaling the official arrival of winter, setting up a dangerous chapter in the war with Russia as Moscow targets Ukraine’s power and energy supplies to deprive the country of heat and electricity.

Anna Grigolaya, the operations manager in the city of Dnipro for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), said the situation will be critical for millions of Ukrainians suffering through more regular and sustained blackouts. 

“Our mission now is to prepare people for probably the worst winter in their lives,” she said. 

More than nine months since Russia’s invasion, Moscow has turned toward a strategy that targets Ukraine’s energy infrastructure and electricity supplies in an effort to destroy the country and break the will of the people. 

“This is a deliberate tactic by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said during a meeting of the Security Council this week. 

“He seems to have decided that if he can’t seize Ukraine by force, he will try to freeze the country into submission. It is hard to overstate how horrific these attacks are,” she added.

Russia launched its largest barrage of missile attacks across Ukraine earlier this week, deploying at least 96 missiles in one day. The barrage included explosive drones provided by Iran that targeted civilian infrastructure and temporarily disconnected 10 million people from power sources as temperatures began to drop. 

British Ambassador to the United Nations Barbara Woodward said at a Security Council meeting that “Russia is knowingly trying to gain military advantage by creating desperation.” 

“Attacks of this kind may violate international humanitarian law and are in any event, deeply inhumane,” she added. 

Spillover from those attacks into neighboring Poland, where an apparently errant Ukrainian air defense missile killed two people near the border on Tuesday, raised the risk that NATO was going to be goaded into a military response.

Tensions were quickly tamped down by President Biden, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the Polish government, which characterized the incident as an accident. 

“What was striking in those early hours, it remains striking, is how level-headed NATO leaders were, both Stoltenberg himself, but also leaders of NATO member states,” said Elisabeth Braw,  a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

“While various talking heads and commentators tweeted furiously about what needed to be done, in terms of strike or retaliating against Russia — it was so striking that NATO member-state leaders and Stoltenberg himself, made no such accusations or call to action, in those early hours.”

But Rosemary DiCarlo, under-secretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs at the United Nations, warned during a Security Council meeting that there is “no end in sight for the war” and “as long as it continues, the risks of potentially catastrophic spillover remain all too real.”

DiCarlo further characterized the recent Russian bombardments on civilians and civilian infrastructure as the most intense over the course of the nine-month war.

“The impact of such attacks can only worsen during the coming winter months,” she said, adding that about 40 percent of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure is damaged. Kyiv has been the hardest hit, as parts of the capital are without electricity for 12 hours per day. 

Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova said in a statement to The Hill that the majority of consumers have been reconnected to the electric grid, but that 2 million people remain without power. 

Close cooperation between the American and Ukrainian energy officials is helping to repair infrastructure to stabilize the energy grid. 

Grigolaya, who spoke with The Hill for about 15 minutes on Friday to preserve her phone battery, said the electricity blackouts are getting worse, accelerating the JDC’s operations to assist the most vulnerable people, particular the elderly.

“We do understand that in some of the regions, we may have a situation when the heat and electricity will not be available for a critical amount of [time], and we will have to evacuate people from there,” she said. 

The JDC is putting in place the resources to open warming shelters, or some “retreats,” that are heated by generators, to house people for a longer period of time than a few hours.

“I think this is an unprecedented effort,” she said of the preparations. 

The organization is also offering warm clothing and shoes, subzero temperature sleeping bags, blankets, portable heaters and cooking stoves, among other items. 

Another JDC initiative, Grigolaya said, is a program taught by a survival expert to help Ukraine’s elderly to survive the Russian attacks on the energy grid.

It gives them tools and knowledge on how to keep homes warm without heat, how to cook without gas and how to keep light in their homes without electricity.

“He specially adapted it for our audience for elderly people and he’s teaching them, in very positive way,” she said. 

The JDC is also utilizing communication networks they established during the pandemic — online programing accessible through smartphones that are specifically tailored for the elderly — to keep them informed. It also provides training and education on heating and cooking devices provided by the group.

“It became really, really critical for them, first of all, to stay connected and now we’re using it to keep them informed about what’s going on, and also to provide some psychological relief, because, we know they say, it’s much easier to be afraid together, that’s what we hear from them.”

Tags American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Jens Stoltenberg Linda Thomas-Greenfield Poland russia ukraine

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