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Foreign Policy
Foreign Policy
Stefanie Glinski

Ukraine Braces for a Brutal Winter Under Russian Bombs

IRPIN, Ukraine—In the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Kyiv’s northwestern suburb of Irpin saw the brunt of the war. Here, a team of municipal workers is now busy emptying a burned-out apartment block. The workers take whatever can be reused or whatever the missiles didn’t destroy: radiators, steel doors, the odd piece of unburned furniture.

“We will then tear down the building,” said Andriy Priymak, one of the city workers, explaining that Irpin alone has at least 50 houses that are beyond repair and up for demolition.

Ukraine is facing its toughest winter yet. Entire cities lie in ruin, but many people who fled areas that sustained heavy damage in the early days of the war are now returning. What they find are battered neighborhoods and cold homes. As Russia continues an intense bombing campaign on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure—the latest attacks on Monday again left countless numbers of people without access to electricity, heat, and water—people are facing an agonizing choice: stay and rebuild those houses that can be saved or leave once again. Many don’t want to give up hope on their homes, even during a potentially deadly winter.

People walk by Russian tanks that were brought from the front line to the capital of Kyiv on Nov. 30.
A municipal worker stands outside a house due to be demolished in the Kyiv suburb of Irpin on Nov. 28.

The numbers are grim. “About 50 percent of Ukraine’s energy systems have been damaged, and 45 percent of Kyiv currently doesn’t have access to electricity. Over the past weeks, whole regions ended up without supply, which [in some areas] lasted for several days,” said Antonina Antosha, spokesperson of Ukrainian energy provider DTEK Group.

According to figures from the Ministry of Energy, power consumption during winter usually increases by at least one-third throughout the country. This year, heavy snowfall had already been recorded throughout much of the country in mid-November, and as temperatures drop, Russia is determined to freeze out Ukraine.

“It’s hard to predict what will happen next, but it’s impossible for us to fully prepare for missile attacks,” Antosha said.

Irpin, where entire neighborhoods have been leveled, struggles with access to power, but Anne Silenko is undaunted. She initially left for central Kyiv in early March when bombings were ceaseless, but she has since returned—to stay. A missile partially destroyed her house and killed her husband of over 40 years. He was found a week later, on April 1, lying under rubble and rubbish in his “beloved” flower garden, Silenko said. She couldn’t go back for the funeral as it was still too dangerous, so her only son, now a frontline fighter, buried him.

Anne Silenko stands in her house in Irpin on Nov. 28, where she plans to stay through the winter. Her husband was killed in the war, and her son is a soldier.

Silenko is one of only a handful of people to return to a neighborhood in ruin. She’s determined to stay, no matter what. She inherited the once-beautiful home from her parents, and preparations for winter are still in full swing. Several nonprofits have rebuilt walls and replaced windows. Ceilings have been stabilized and propped up with scaffolding. She’s thankful that most of the work will be done before the “worst of winter,” she said, admitting that she is probably facing the toughest season of her life. Right now, electricity comes and goes, but further attacks could quickly cut supplies.

“If there are problems, I will solve them,” she said, reaching for a small chainsaw next to her fireplace. “If there’s no gas, I’ll cut wood to make a fire. If there’s no water, I’ll use the well in my garden, and if there’s no electricity, I will use the small generator I have already purchased.”

At 67, she’s unwilling to move, no matter what. She misses her husband and son, Roman—who can’t make it home from the front often—but she’s opened her doors to the few other neighbors who, like her, returned. “They come here for a cup of coffee, or just to warm up and charge their phones,” Silenko explained. “The Russians?” She shrugged. “I wouldn’t even leave if they came back.”

A woman walks along slushy streets by shelled and bombed houses in Irpin on Nov. 28.
A child walks by a snow-covered and Ukraine flag-draped van in Irpin on Nov. 28.

Julia Myron, a 29-year-old military psychologist on maternity leave who lives in an apartment block across from Silenko’s small house, hasn’t yet made her final decision on where to spend winter.

“At home, ideally,” she said, but added that it would be tough with her 2-month-old daughter, Ksenia. “We almost never have power and no warm water. We can see our icy breath even inside.”

Myron initially escaped to Italy shortly after the war started but decided to return home to deliver her baby in Ukraine and be reunited with her husband, who isn’t a soldier but isn’t allowed to leave the country, either. When they returned to Irpin, they found their apartment damaged by shelling. They fixed the blown-out windows and replaced some of the broken furniture.

“It’s either staying in our cold apartment with a newborn or leaving again and being separated from my husband. Neither is a good option,” Myron said.

People gather in a heated tent in Kyiv on Nov. 28. The temporary shelters are set up to provide hot drinks, electricity, internet, and even a place to sleep if needed.

A short walk from her house, a new “heating point” has recently been set up: a generator-powered tent offering warm drinks, water, and even a place to sleep. “It’s a sort of emergency service for people who are completely out of power, funded in part by the city of Irpin and the government,” explained manager Roman Dzubinski. Similar initiatives are set up throughout the entire country, in schools, tents, and even train stations, with Kyiv planning to equip 1,000 such heating points.

Dzubinski expects them to fill up during the coming months. “People say they want to be back in their homes, but they also need to be warm, so that’s what we’re helping with,” he said.

But Priymak, the city worker, believes many people will leave again if frequent Russian bombings of energy infrastructure continue. He doesn’t know where the residents of the apartment block he’s cleaning out went. “They sadly didn’t have the choice to return. Tomorrow, we have to tear down this building.”

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