Ukrainians grapple with power outages as winter approaches

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Cars pass in Independence Square at twilight in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, Oct. 31, 2022. Rolling blackouts are increasing across Ukraine as the government rushes to stabilise the energy grid and repair the system ahead of winter. (AP Photo/Andrew Kravchenko)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The decorative candles Yaroslav Vedmid bought more than a year ago were never meant to be lit, but the dried wax that now clings to them attests to how they’ve been used almost nightly — a consequence of power cuts across Ukraine.

Seated at the dinner table with his wife in a village on the outskirts of the capital, Kyiv, the two can’t count the number of times they’ve eaten in the dark since Russian attacks triggered the blackouts beginning in early October. Moscow has openly declared its intention to target the country’s energy infrastructure and drive the nation into the cold.

“When you’re relying on electricity, the worst thing is that you can’t plan … Psychologically it’s very uncomfortable,” said Vedmid, a 44-year-old business owner in Bilohorodka. The cuts are getting longer — nearly 12 hours of outages a day, he said.

So far, Russia has destroyed about 40% of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, affecting 16 regions, according to the Ukrainian government.

The latest assault came Monday, when a massive barrage of Russian cruise missile and drone strikes hit Kyiv, Kharkiv and other cities, knocking out water and power supplies in apparent retaliation for what Moscow alleged was a Ukrainian attack on its Black Sea fleet.

In Kyiv, some 80% of consumers in the city of 3 million were left without water because of damage to a power facility Monday. By Tuesday, water was fully restored as well as some power. Kyiv region governor, Oleksiy Kuleba said that 20,000 apartments in the region remained without power.

The unpredictable rolling blackouts are increasing as the government scrambles to stabilize the energy grid and repair the system ahead of winter. The cuts add another layer of angst and uncertainty to a population already struggling with the stress of nearly nine months of war.

To try to ease people’s burdens, energy companies are publishing daily schedules of when neighborhoods won’t have power. But it’s not consistent, especially as strikes intensify. Last week a power station in the central region was damaged, causing an emergency shutdown and prompting the government to warn citizens of tougher and longer outages.

“Unfortunately, the destruction and damage are serious,” Kyiv region Gov. Oleksiy Kuleba said in a Telegram post. “It is necessary to prepare for emergency power outages for an indefinite period,” he said.

Across the capital, residents are stocking up on heaters, blankets, warm clothing and power banks to charge electronics. While most say they’re willing to bear the brunt of the blackouts for the sake of the war, the frequency and fluidity of the outages are taxing.

Starting Tuesday, the government plans to change the schedule of the Kyiv subway to include longer wait times to save energy.

On the day that The Associated Press visited Vedmid’s house in October, there was an unscheduled five-hour power outage and then a scheduled one during dinner.

Every time the power shuts off, the family loses internet service. Because the village also has a weak phone network, the household is often unable to communicate with others.

Staring at his mobile phone, Vedmid shrugs. Google Maps isn’t working, and he doesn’t know how long it will take to reach the train station for a planned trip with his wife to the country.

But what concerns him most are the months ahead when temperatures could drop to minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit). “My major fears are for (the) cold part of season, for winter, because right now it influences our comfort but doesn’t threaten our lives,” he said.

The family has ordered a generator, which should be installed by December, but demand has spiked and not everyone can afford to buy one or the fuel to run it. Diesel has doubled in price since the start of the war, local residents said.

Still, some have found a silver lining to the shutdowns. Vedmid’s wife, Olena, said she reads more books rather than constantly refreshing the internet to see the latest war developments. It helps her feel less anxious.

If not for Russia’s incessant shelling and the lack of repair equipment, much of which must be imported, the damage could be restored within weeks, energy experts said.

“The main danger is repeated missile attacks,” said professor Gennadii Riabtsev, chief researcher on energy security at the National Institute for Strategic Studies. Residents of cities near the front lines, such as Mykolaiv, Zaporizhzhia and Kharkiv, will suffer the most from the outages, he said.

DTEK, Ukraine’s main energy company, said it has run out of equipment for repairs. The cost of the equipment runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Russia is likely to continue the war into the winter, hoping to weaken Western support for Ukraine and “freeze Europe into surrender,” according to a report issued this week by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank.

Residents near the front lines say they are bracing for conditions to get worse.

Mariia Chupinina was dealing with blackouts in Kharkiv even before the rolling outages began in the region this week. The woman who fosters orphaned children lives on the fifth floor of an apartment building and takes care of four babies who are less than 12 months old. When there’s no electricity, it’s impossible to heat the apartment, and every time they leave, they have to walk down five flights of stairs in the dark, she told the AP by phone.

If Chupinina forgets to plan ahead, the babies won’t have anything to eat. “If you have not prepared, you don’t have time to fill the Thermos, and there’s no warm water or formula,” she said.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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