After nine months of war, millions of Ukrainians are confronting new foes: darkness, cold, and taps running dry. With temperatures already dropping below zero in parts of Ukraine, another hail of Russian missile attacks on infrastructure last week left nearly half the energy system out of operation. The power grid operator spoke on Tuesday of “colossal” damage; an energy provider warned blackouts would last at least until March. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said if Ukraine can survive the coming winter, it can “definitely win this war”. To do so, it will need huge aid to keep homes, factories, schools and hospitals running.
When a barrage of Russian rockets hit Ukrainian infrastructure early last month, it was assumed to be retaliation for an attack on the Kerch bridge linking Russia to Crimea. Successive waves of missile strikes have made it clear this was the beginning of a co-ordinated strategy. Moscow also bombed natural gas production in east Ukraine last week, and Gazprom’s threat on Tuesday to restrict supplies to western Europe through its remaining trans-Ukraine pipeline was ominous for Kyiv too. Ukraine no longer buys Russian gas directly, but reimports volumes from Europe, some of which come from Russia. After its humiliating battlefield setbacks, Russia is trying to make life miserable for millions away from the front lines, and force Kyiv to sue for peace.
Ukrainians’ extraordinary resilience is unlikely to crack. Energy companies have done an impressive job, too, of repairs and improvisation to keep electricity flowing. But many citizens are without power several hours a day, and if damage goes above a certain level systems could start to collapse. The risk of a new humanitarian crisis is real.
Authorities have begun evacuating civilians from liberated areas of Kherson and Mykolayiv because of severe damage there — though the national grid operator played down the need to evacuate civilians from cities further west. The government is urging the country to conserve energy, and discouraging refugees from returning.
Ukraine’s allies need to do more to help. Since targeting civilian infrastructure is a war crime, foreign governments should make clear they will pursue all Russians responsible. Continuing to provide sophisticated air defence systems must also be part of the response, and doing whatever possible to thwart Russia’s efforts to replenish its dwindling cruise missile stocks and obtain new weapons — including ballistic missiles that are harder to shoot down.
Yet some western officials concede discussions on financial support to Ukraine had not properly anticipated Moscow’s damaging new tactics. Zelenskyy told finance ministers in Washington last month Ukraine would need $38bn to cover its forecast budget deficit and $17bn to rebuild infrastructure next year. Both figures now seem likely to rise. Emergency funding will be needed to bridge budget gaps and pay for repairs and support activities. A portion of the billions of dollars already earmarked for postwar reconstruction will need to be pulled forward for rebuilding to keep services and the economy functioning. That is likely to require blended finance, using aid money to help attract private capital, with the involvement of multinational development banks.
More immediately, the mosaic of aid agencies and charities active in Ukraine together with foreign capitals will need to step up efforts to provide everything from diesel generators and blankets to transformers and switchgear. EU officials warn of difficulties keeping up with demand. Millions outside Ukraine have opened their homes to refugees; now support is needed to help those still in the country through the icy winter.