As winter looms, snowfall and mud present new hardships for Ukraine
By Matthew Mpoke Bigg
Increasingly frigid winter weather presented new challenges for Ukraine on Sunday as mud churned up the battlefield and snowfall made the government’s task of restoring power supplies devastated by weeks of Russian bombing all the more urgent.
The state energy company, Ukrenergo, said there was enough electricity to cover 80% of the country’s consumption needs because nuclear power stations, disconnected from the national grid by Russian attacks last week, had been brought back online. But it urged Ukrainians to continue to use electricity sparingly to avoid overwhelming a national grid that has been weakened by repeated barrages of Russian cruise missiles and drones.
“If consumption increases in the evening, the number of outages may increase,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly address late Saturday. “This once again shows how important it is now to save power and consume it rationally.”
The pleas highlighted the growing concerns in Ukraine and among its allies that even as its forces gain ground on the battlefield, the onset of winter will bring new difficulties. Muddy, cold conditions could slow the progress of Ukrainian troops trying to recapture territory in the east and south, although they will also challenge the Russians. At the same time, Russia’s strategy of attacking Ukrainian infrastructure from the air could make life miserable for civilians far from the front lines and add to pressure on Zelenskyy’s government.
Ukraine’s allies, whose military hardware has helped shift the momentum in the war, are accelerating their effort to help the country prepare for more disruptions to its power supply. The European Union announced over the weekend that it would deliver to Ukraine 40 generators, each capable of powering a hospital, as well as 200 transformers, according to a statement by the European Commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen. The United States said it has also provided generators, and Canada said it had allocated money for the same purpose.
For some Ukrainians, the switch to generator power carried its own risks. The chief of police of the Kyiv region, Andriy Nebytov, said that in the village of Bobrytsia, a man died and his wife was hospitalized because of carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator placed in their living room. He said that in another village in the region, Hostomel, four members of one family, including a 12-year-old girl, were also hospitalized because of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Moscow has escalated its attacks on Ukraine’s energy system over the past several weeks as its troops have been forced to retreat from territory they had seized across a broad front, from the city of Izium in the northeast to Kherson hundreds of miles away in the south.
Since Ukraine reclaimed the city of Kherson on Nov. 11, neither side has recorded significant advances on the battlefield. “The overall pace of operations along the frontline has slowed in recent days due to deteriorating weather conditions,” said a report late Saturday by the Institute for the Study of War research institute.
But military analysts say that another, perhaps more significant, factor is that Ukraine’s advance has pushed the invading Russian forces to the eastern side of the Dnieper River, which bisects Ukraine and now provides a natural barrier.
In eastern Ukraine, both sides have established stronger defensive positions and dug trenches to provide cover from the intense artillery fire of frequent battles. Serhiy Haidai, head of the military administration in the Luhansk region in the east, said in a post on Telegram on Sunday: “Every liberated meter of the Luhansk region is very, very hard.”
Analysts say that while fighting is unlikely to stop for winter, the weather will make it harder for both armies to maintain troops in the field.
In the eastern city of Bakhmut, which Russian forces have pummeled for months but failed to capture, residents have taken to cutting down trees and foliage to burn for warmth, its utilities having been destroyed by unrelenting attacks. The ground, not yet frozen, has turned to mud, sticking to uniforms and weapons and ensnaring vehicles, military and civilian alike.
Analysts said that cold can affect morale and that mud will present a particular obstacle for vehicles over the next few weeks before the ground freezes. In such conditions, the supply of Western support to Ukraine’s military, which has included winter clothing, could help keep troops warm and give them an advantage, not least over newly mobilized Russian soldiers just arriving on the battlefield.
Still, Russia has continued to bombard Ukrainian towns and villages, with authorities in at least five Ukrainian regions reporting attacks Sunday. Kyrylo Tymoshenko, a senior official in Zelenskyy’s office, said seven people had been killed since Saturday and 19 others wounded because of Russian attacks or explosions caused by land mines planted by Moscow’s forces.
Kherson has been hit particularly hard since Russian forces retreated this month from the regional capital to the eastern side of the Dnieper and set up a defensive position from which they have continued to fire upon Ukrainian soldiers and civilians. Yaroslav Yanushevych, head of the Kherson regional military administration, said on Telegram on Sunday that Russia had shelled the region from across the river 54 times since Saturday. One person was killed and a girl was wounded in an attack overnight, he said.
Russia was using “terror tactics, deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure and civilians,” he said. In a separate post, he added that Russian artillery had again hit the city’s power lines Sunday.
Valentyn Reznichenko, head of the military administration in the central region of Dneprotrovsk, said on Telegram that Russia had fired Grad rockets and heavy artillery at the district of Nikopol from positions in Enerhodar, a city close to the embattled Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. Residents in Nikopol were “terrorized” by the attack, he said, although nobody was injured.