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KYIV — Ukraine’s western city of Lviv is preparing for the worst by buying potbelly stoves, as it becomes increasingly clear that Russia’s strategy is to knock out the nation’s core energy infrastructure in the run-up to winter.
The authorities have already bought 600 of the bulbous cast-iron wood burners to be distributed across the city, which lies close to the Polish border.
“We plan to buy several thousand,” Serhiy Kiral, Lviv’s deputy mayor, told POLITICO, adding that the city would also dole out the firewood to keep them alight.
“The idea is that every resident should have a place to warm up. This could be a potbelly stove built in the basement of a building with an exhaust pipe leading to street level. It could be an open space in the city, where people can gather at certain times to warm up, chat, eat and then return to their cold apartments.”
It is likely these stoves will prove vital in a city where average winter temperatures hover beneath zero. Russia’s bombardment of Ukrainian cities on Monday and Tuesday has shown Moscow is now trying to make up for its defeats on the battlefield by striking power infrastructure and is seeking to sap Ukrainians’ morale by plunging them into cold and darkness as winter draws near.
Cruise missile and drone strikes across Ukraine on Monday and Tuesday conspicuously targeted power stations, and local authorities also reported that water supplies had been disrupted. Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi posted images of his city on the evening after the attack, showing buildings as dark silhouettes after the electricity was cut. Hit hard, the city suffered blackouts throughout Monday and Tuesday.
Many Ukrainians argue that Russia’s new commander, Sergey Surovikin, infamous for his targeting of civilian targets in Syria, is likely to make the destruction of infrastructure a key part of his offensive. Realizing this danger well before Surovikin’s appointment, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been pressing Western allies for advanced air defenses, precisely to protect civilian targets including power stations and dams. U.S. President Joe Biden promised to deliver on Monday night.
In Kyiv, major private power supplier DTEK, controlled by the nation’s richest oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, has announced that rolling power cuts may be necessary starting Tuesday. According to the company, Kyiv residents should expect blackouts lasting up to four hours per day.
Keeping up morale
Oleksii Riabchyn, an energy adviser to the Ukrainian government and a former deputy energy minister, said Russia’s game plan was clear but predicted that it would end in failure.
“Russia is doing this to break the morale of the Ukrainian people, to stoke internal strife and to try to make people demand that the authorities negotiate [with Moscow],” he told POLITICO. “They want the families of soldiers to suffer in the cold and they blame Ukraine for this suffering. But this is not going to happen. We are going to win,” he added. “But we are all preparing for a very difficult cold season.”
On Tuesday, the governor of Dniepropetrovsk region Valentyn Reznichenko declared a “regime of total economy of electrical energy, so that hospitals, transport and other critical social infrastructure can function,” after a Russian missile strike on energy facilities.
“The damage is very serious. Many residential areas have been left without electricity,” he wrote on social media.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to President Zelenskyy’s office, said in an interview with POLITICO before the current wave of mass missile strikes on energy infrastructure, that the nation’s leadership had been preparing for such a scenario.
In addition to the push to improve air defenses, work has also been underway to fortify important energy sites with concrete slabs and sand. The authorities also prepared mobile repair brigades with the capacity to rapidly minimize damage to power plants hit by missiles, wherever possible.
“But the most important thing is that there is a phenomenal consensus among Ukrainian society. People are prepared to endure a difficult winter. They are ready that will be a deficit of heating, water and electricity,” Podolyak added. “People are ready to suffer, and whatever happens, to win the war.”
In Lviv, the authorities are not only steeling themselves to look after their own population. The city is also preparing to accept refugees from the eastern regions of Ukraine, in case the winter there is impossible to endure, as heavy fighting has resulted in the almost total destruction of the energy infrastructure.
“We have already received official reports from the mayors of several towns that the heating season will simply not start there,” deputy mayor Kiral said. “Tens, or maybe even hundreds of thousands of residents of eastern Ukraine will have to evacuate — sometimes, perhaps by force — to the west of the country.”
Last week, Serhiy Gaidai, the governor of the eastern Luhansk region, said that the residents of its territories, which he hopes will be liberated within the coming weeks, will not be allowed to get back to their homes. “It is impossible to start the heating season there; everything is broken,” he added in a tweet.
According to Kiral, Lviv, with a pre-war population of 700,000, could once again have to welcome hundreds of thousands of internal refugees, as happened at the beginning of the war in February.
“That will be an additional challenge,” he said.