How Ukraine Is Preparing For Winter


By Olga Golovina

Iryna, a pensioner, is one of the few people still living on the ninth floor of her apartment building in Izyum.

She moves around her flat slowly, bundled up in warm clothes. The windowpanes had been knocked out in blast waves that accompanied missile strikes, Iryna explained; she had replaced them out of her meagre pension.

The Kharkiv region city was under Russian occupation from April to September, during which time 80 per cent of its buildings were destroyed.

In March, before the city fell to the Russians, constant shelling meant that Iryna and her neighbours had to decamp to the basement for a month. There was not enough space for them all; they were forced to sleep sitting up, and everyone was terribly cold.

Now, she is grateful to the volunteers who have brought her food, warm clothes and an electric heater.

But asked why she had not left for a safer city as the cold season intensified, she responded angrily, “To go where? To go somewhere, you need a car and money. We pensioners, do not have the opportunity to go and how can we [abandon our homes] to looters?”

Winter presents huge challenges to Ukrainians resisting the full-scale Russian invasion of their country.

Concerted Russian attacks on critical infrastructure means that millions of people risk being left without electricity, water and heat over the coming months.

Many Ukrainians prepare for the cold season by stocking up on generators and gas cylinders, while those in rural areas buy firewood.

But energy shortages have led to emergency power outages, particularly in the Kyiv and Odesa regions, with water and heat automatically turned off in apartment buildings when the electricity supply cuts out.

Across Ukraine, the authorities opened so-called points of invincibility in schools, shopping centres, administrative buildings and even police stations and prisons where anyone can charge their phone, work online, drink hot tea, heat food in a microwave and share the latest news.

But essential services will be hit particularly hard by the effects of power outages.

“It is necessary to get through the winter period satisfactorily in order to be able to provide medical care at a high level. You understand – if there is no electricity, heating, water – we will not be able to work,” said Yurii Kuznetsov, the only Ukrainian doctor who has remained in Izyum since March.

The emergency department of the city hospital kept functioning throughout the periods of fierce fighting and the occupation. Amidst the heaviest bombardments, Kuznetsov saw patients in the basement, where in near-freezing temperatures he dispensed medicine, performed operations – and delivered four babies.

The top two floors of the four-storey building are still too damaged to use, but Kuznetsov proudly shows off the units he and his team had managed to repair.

“Compared to spring, we’ve done a lot: put in windows, replaced batteries, stocked up on generators,” he said.

Before the war, about 500 people worked in the hospital, while now there are just 170. But Kuznetsov is glad he and his core team kept the clinics running during the months of occupation.

“At the time when Ukraine [forces] returned [to Izyum], we already had a medical centre and colleagues already had a place to return and resume their work. They did not come to an empty place.

In Kupyansk, another 15,000-strong city in Kharkiv region, the medical centre was completely destroyed in shelling. Although Kupyansk was liberated in September, missile fire continues, with critical infrastructure a key target.

“We can’t now work in this polyclinic, so we are looking for a place together with the administration where we can provide assistance to the population,” said Yuriy Synko director of the Kupyansk Medical Association. “Before the shelling, we provided surgical, therapeutic, oncological, cardiology and dental services on the premises of the polyclinic.”

Across the road from the destroyed hospital, people from local villages queue at an ATM to access pensions or withdraw cash.

“We live one day at a time,” said Nina, a woman in her 40s. “My children left, and we stayed.”

Schools are also closed in cities such as Izyum and Kupyansk. Children learn online when possible.

“Few shops are open,” Nina continued. “Every day you go out – you see these devastations – it’s a pity. It was a flourishing city before.”


Soldiers on the frontline are also bracing for winter. The 3rd Tank Brigade is stationed 20 kilometres from the Russian border in the Kharkiv region, in a small house transformed into a surveillance point. A bourzhuyka, a traditional cast iron stove, heats the space, filled with a sofa and a table.

Deputy commander Captain Yuriy Kulish took part in the military operations of 2014-2015 and recalls how the temperature reached minus 20 degrees in the Donetsk region.

“Here, people say it can be as low as minus 32 degrees,” he continued. “It’s okay, we survived, everything is fine. I am not worried and nothing scares me. I, like my comrades, passed through Izyum and Slovyansk. There were direct tank battles there. We learned to fight, and to fight hard in winter.”

He said that snow cover would impact on tactics, though.

“All movements become immediately noticeable and there is an immediate response to it,” he continued. “I think it will be more static.”

Soldiers say that they are not afraid of frost. Their biggest fear is that technology will let them down.

“What is the difference between shooting in winter or summer? Maintenance of equipment – that’s what all the specificity is,” Kulish said.

Serhiy was an IT specialist before the war and now commands a platoon. After the full-scale invasion, he sent his family to Finland and signed up for military service.

“I had two months with American instructors who conducted military training for us. After that, I was mobilised here in the unit,” he said.

Serhiy also believes that winter will not dramatically change the dynamics of the war, beyond the need for soldiers to rest and warm up more often.

“However, I think that the intensity of fighting will not decrease, it will be the same, and maybe, on the contrary, it will increase. I suspect that we need to recapture our territories as soon as possible. And therefore there is no time to pause.”

For some, despite the war, the winter season brings its classic pleasures. In a nearby village, a group of children are rejoicing at the first snow.

“In winter, we like to build a snowman, go sledding down the hill and throw snowballs,” said Lyera, 10.

All are already looking forward to the festive season and the presents they hope to receive. Lyera has her heart set on a doll, a remote-control car and “a lamp that glows in the form of a flamingo”. And she doesn’t mind that school is closed; she has lots of other children to hang out with.

This publication was published by IWPR and prepared under the “Ukraine Voices Project” implemented with the financial support of the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO).


The Institute for War & Peace Reporting is headquartered in London with coordinating offices in Washington, DC and The Hague, IWPR works in over 30 countries worldwide. It is registered as a charity in the UK, as an organisation with tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) in the United States, and as a charitable foundation in The Netherlands. The articles are originally produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

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