KYIV, Ukraine — After just six weeks of intense bombing of energy infrastructure, Russia has battered Ukraine to the brink of a humanitarian disaster this winter as millions of people potentially face life-threatening conditions without electricity, heat or running water.
As the scope of damage to Ukraine’s energy systems has come into focus in recent days, Ukrainian and Western officials have begun sounding the alarm but are also realizing they have limited recourse. Ukraine’s Soviet-era power system cannot be fixed quickly or easily. In some of the worst-hit cities, there is little officials can do other than to urge residents to flee — raising the risk of economic collapse in Ukraine and a spillover refugee crisis in neighboring European countries.
“Put simply, this winter will be about survival,” Hans Henri P. Kluge, regional director for the World Health Organization, told reporters on Monday in Kyiv, saying the next months could be “life-threatening for millions of Ukrainians.”
Already, snow has fallen across much of Ukraine and temperatures are dipping below freezing in many parts of the country. Kluge said that 2 million to 3 million Ukrainians were expected to leave their homes “in search of warmth and safety,” though it was unclear how many would remain inside the country.
On Wednesday, Russia pounded Ukraine with another barrage of missiles, striking energy infrastructure and residential areas across the country, killing at least three people in Kyiv, according to local authorities, and setting off blackouts in much of the country, including Lviv in western Ukraine.
Ukraine’s Energy Ministry, in a statement, said the bombing left the “great majority of consumers without power.” The strikes caused a temporary shutdown “of the majority of thermal and hydro-electric plants,” potentially disrupting heat and water supplies.
Even before Wednesday’s attacks, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said that about half of the country’s energy infrastructure was “out of order” following the bombardment.
The dire warnings indicate that despite a string of losses on the battlefield, Russia’s airstrikes have wrought destruction that will severely test Ukrainians’ national resolve and sharply raise the costs for Kyiv’s Western allies, who are struggling with spiking energy prices in their own countries.
Military experts said that Russian President Vladimir Putin was trying to compensate for territorial losses and to create a sense of war fatigue among Ukraine’s European NATO allies in hopes that they will eventually pressure Kyiv to make concessions and slow arms shipments that enabled Ukraine’s victories.
“This is all about the weaponization of refugees,” retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army Europe, said in an interview.
“By making Ukraine uninhabitable in the wintertime, they are potentially sending millions more Ukrainians to Europe,” Hodges said. “That would put pressure on European governments. The hope is that Europe, in turn, would pressure Kyiv.”
“The Russians are losing everywhere,” Hodges said, adding that “their only tactic” is to target nonmilitary civilian infrastructure “to drag things out” and hopefully obtain a solution “more favorable to the Kremlin.”
However, a senior European Union official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to brief the press, said the bloc could absorb a new wave of refugees and would support Ukraine “as long as it takes.”
“However Putin tries to break the will of Ukrainian people, we will provide what they need,” the official said.
Russia is showing no sign of relenting. Last week, Moscow unleashed brutal barrages involving about 100 missiles and scores of self-destructing drones on two separate days, hitting targets throughout the country and leaving nearly 10 million Ukrainians without power.
For weeks, Russian missiles have targeted key components of Ukraine’s electrical transmission system, knocking out vital transformers without which it is impossible to supply power to households, businesses, government offices, schools, hospitals and other critical facilities.
During a briefing for reporters Tuesday, Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, the head of Ukrenergo, the state-run power grid operator, called the damage to the power system “colossal.”
And Russia last week broadened its targets. Oleksiy Chernyshov, chief executive of Ukrainian state energy company Naftogaz, said in an interview that a “massive rocket attack” hit 10 gas production facilities in the Kharkiv and Poltava regions, including Shebelinka, one the largest production and drilling areas.
“Of course, we will do our best now to recover, but this will take time and resources and material,” Chernyshov said. “Time is of the essence,” he added. “Because winter is now.”
The targeting of the gas supply was a critical development, said Victoria Voytsitska, a former member of parliament now working with civil society groups on getting Ukraine the equipment it needs. If Moscow takes out the gas system, she said, cities and villages across the country could become “uninhabitable.”
Now the question is what Russia will attack next.
Voytsitska and others predict the targets will include other parts of the gas delivery system, as well as bridges and railway lines. She expressed special concern that Russia could strike the plants that operate major cities’ centralized heating systems, exposing millions to freezing temperatures.
“Nothing is stopping” the Russians, she said. “What is going to stop them are Western air missile defense systems, of which we don’t have enough yet.”
Cities throughout Ukraine, including Kyiv, the capital, are undergoing scheduled blackouts to reduce strain on the electrical grid, especially during peak usage hours.
These outages usually last around four hours, though the number of shutdowns varies. Borys Filatov, mayor of Dnipro in central Ukraine, said nine hours was the longest any section of his city had gone without power. In Kyiv, deputy head of the city administration Petro Panteleyev said blackouts can last up to 12 hours.
Stores and restaurants may be dark during the day but keep regular hours, often needing customers to pay cash because credit card terminals do not work. At night, lightless streets turn into treacherous obstacle courses, especially after snow and rain. Gas-fueled generators are now often heard chugging away.
But when Russia launches major attacks, as it did last week, large sections of the country are plunged into darkness for extended periods as repair crews scramble to respond.
Ukrainian officials have sought to project confidence.
For now, the situation is “difficult” but “under control,” Ukrainian Energy Minister German Galushchenko wrote in response to questions from The Washington Post. But with “each attack it becomes more difficult,” he said, to restore damaged equipment and ensure the system runs smoothly.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has insisted that Russia’s strikes are serving military purposes and will continue until Moscow’s military objectives are achieved.
Western officials, however, dispute that there is any military utility.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has said the missile strikes had “little or no military purpose” and constituted a war crime. “With the onset of winter, families will be without power and, more importantly, without heat,” Austin said. “Basic human survival and subsistence is going to be severely impacted, and human suffering for the Ukrainian population is going to increase.”
Kudrytskyi, the head of Ukrenergo, said the situation was akin to a “wide, convenient highway that’s been hit by a bomb.”
“You can take detours in the same direction,” Kudrytskyi wrote in response to written questions. “It is clear that when all the cars traveling on the highway turn onto narrower detours, they create traffic jams and it takes more time to get to their destination. But you still get to where you’re going.”
Russians, he said, were mainly targeting substations, nodes on the electrical grid where the current is redirected from power stations. The main components of these substations are autotransformers — “high-tech and high-cost equipment” that is difficult to replace.
Kudrytskyi said that some parts of the grid have been hit five times. Repair crews “work 24/7 to restore the damage as quickly as possible,” he said, but then a Russian missile “flies into this equipment again,” leaving “a pile of charred scrap in the place where they installed a new transformer.”
As a result, Ukraine’s energy operators need vast quantities of almost all basic materials.
A list of “urgent needs” from DTEK, the country’s largest private energy company, circulating in Washington lists dozens of transformers along with circuit breakers, bushings and transformer oil.
The U.S. Agency for International Development says it has been working to secure energy assistance for Ukraine, including $7 million in repair equipment for Kyiv, Kharkiv, Sumy and Mykolaiv, with a first delivery scheduled next week. In a statement, the agency also said that “we have procured and are working to deliver” more than 1,700 generators, including some to be used for emergency heating centers.
But it is the autotransformers — the “heart” of the substations, in the words of Kudrytskyi — that are at the top of the Ukrainians’ list of needs and the key to keeping the country’s electrical grid functioning.
The Ukrainians have tried to buy up every autotransformer they can find, going as far as South Korea to purchase them, but they still need to place orders for more to be built.
“We try to collect everything around the world that they have now and order more,” said Olena Zerkal, an adviser to Ukraine’s Energy Ministry.
While manufacturers are sympathetic to Ukraine’s problems, it can be difficult for them to set aside orders from other customers. The equipment also needs to be brought to Ukraine. Each autotransformer weighs more than 500 pounds, Kudrytskyi said, making it a large, easy target for bombing while in transit.
Officials in Washington say they are conscious of Ukraine’s needs and working urgently to find and deliver spare parts. One senior policymaker, who was not authorized to talk to the press and spoke on the condition of anonymity, described working “12 to 15 hours a day” on the problem.
Among the challenges, the policymaker said, are that U.S. manufacturers do not always have needed equipment in stock — and if they do, it can take too long to get it to Ukraine. One idea is to establish a reserve of spare parts in Poland, so that equipment could be rushed into Ukraine when needed.
Olena Pavlenko, the president of DiXi Group, a Kyiv-based energy consultancy, was in France and Washington last week to try to push Ukraine’s partners to speed up equipment deliveries. But Pavlenko said she was worried that Washington was not moving fast enough.
The E.U. has set up a platform to match Ukrainian requests to countries with available equipment. French President Emmanuel Macron has announced a Dec. 13 donor meeting focusing in part on infrastructure.
But for some, mid-December is still a long way away. “The words ‘critical’ and ‘urgent’ are too weak to describe the pressing needs of the power system for repair equipment,” said Galushchenko, the energy minister. “For us, it’s not every day that is important but every hour.”
Rauhala reported from Brussels and Birnbaum from Washington. Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.