The lights are going out all over Ukraine as the war rages on, targeting civilian infrastructure. A bitter winter is descending on a courageous country, and millions of residents are preparing for the cold and the dark. This weekend, Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv, warned that water, electricity and heat may be broken down entirely.
“Let's be frank," Mr Klitschko said. “Our enemies are doing everything for the city to be without heat, without electricity, without water supply, in general, so we all die."
The Ukrainians are preparing for the worst even while their enemies are doing everything possible to make this a miserable winter.
But they may have underestimated how resilient Ukrainians can be. They held back the Russians from the gates of their capital. They made it through a summer of intense warfare in the south and the east. Their country has been violated but they remain committed to complete territorial integrity. Despite US President Joe Biden’s private requests for negotiations with the Russians – surely a way of propping up his own midterm election battle – Ukrainians are determined to get the total return of their country. But wars in winter, even for Russians who fought in the depths of the winter in Chechnya and the mountains of Afghanistan, are notoriously difficult to fight, and harder for civilians to endure. Those who can flee will, but those who cannot – the disabled, the poor, the elderly – will literally freeze.
“The future of the country and the future of each of us depends on how prepared we are for different situations,” Mr Klitschko said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said that 4.5 million people were without electricity. He called on Ukrainians to endure the hardships saying: “We must get through this winter and be even stronger now than in the spring.”
Throughout the country there are rolling outages and blackouts. Kyiv has scheduled hourly rotating “blackout Sundays” in part of the city. People are getting ready by stocking up on candles, generators if they can afford it, and food. They are being told to stockpile drinking water.
Winter preparation also means nearly a thousand heating centres throughout Kyiv in places like kindergartens and administration or cultural centres, where the residents cluster to get warm. Train stations will be equipped to keep them warm without electricity. In Kharkiv, local administrations are organising kitchens in the heating points so people can prepare hot meals for their families, and generators with sockets to charge phones. In Odesa, there are already 141 heating stations.
But these heating points might not be enough for Kyiv, for instance, where there are 3 million people. Some are trying to flee for western Ukrainian cities, or Poland.
I used to think that the cruelest form of warfare was a siege – to starve a population of food and water – but death by cold is unthinkable. In Syria, President Bashar Al Assad’s forces used “surrender or starve” as a tool of war, depriving parts of Aleppo, Madaya, Daraya and other Syrian towns. This was also the case in Sarajevo, Stalingrad, and even the siege of Paris, in 1870-71, by German forces. Parisians faced such food shortages that they infamously took to eating the zoo animals.
Those who survived did it by sheer resourcefulness and determination. Sarajevans made bread from rice. In Stalingrad and Leningrad, they boiled shoe leather to make soup. Still, nearly 670,000 civilians died during the Leningrad siege, largely from starvation when the Nazis deliberately cut off food supplies to the city.
But freezing people to death deliberately is a heinous crime. Deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure to take out electricity, heat and water is an attempt to cut through the morale and courage of the population. I remember an entire nursing home of old people on a frontline in Sarajevo, where nearly all the elderly inhabitants had frozen to death in their beds. I found one old woman, still alive, clinging to life in an icy bed, hovering between life and death.
It’s hard for the Ukrainian people to stand strong and say Slava Ukraini (Glory to Ukraine) when you have to work by candlelight or give up washing or eating. Hunger and cold robs even the most courageous of their strength. And yet, it is not impossible.
Sarajevo was besieged but it never capitulated, staying alive through three frozen winters. Starving Leningrad musicians played Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony Number 7, which infuriated the Germans who were besieging them.
And the Ukrainians are also holding fast. People are sitting by candlelight in cafes and planning ahead for work meetings on days when there is no energy. One time I saw an entire seminar held in a bomb shelter on de-mining bombs. “We planned it months ago, so the war isn’t going to stop us," the manager calmly explained.
A few weeks ago, in Lviv, I saw a group of people gathered around a young singer who was belting out the national anthem, which came into being in 1991 when Ukraine broke away from the former Soviet Union. A friend told me that back in those days, no one knew the words. Today, it has been sung outside 10 Downing Street, at the Metropolitan Opera and the Royal Albert Hall as well as street corners by buskers:
Luck will still smile on us brother-Ukrainians. Our enemies will die, as the dew does in the sunshine, and we, too, brothers, we'll live happily in our land.
Ukraine could still eventually win the war.
One lesson that was learnt bitterly by occupying forces – whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or Palestine – is that people fighting for their own land and their roots will never stop fighting. Most importantly, the international community cannot allow millions of Ukrainian people to freeze to death. The world cannot simply stand by watch.