‘We’re passing the test’ - Ukraine’s defiance undimmed as Russia smashes power grid

Kyiv Letter: Rolling blackouts bring new obsessions and fears nine months into all-out war

At dusk on a December day in wartime Ukraine, darkness seems to fall early, quickly, and to just keep on falling.

Glowing streetlamps and lighted windows can no longer be relied upon to keep night at bay, because Russian cruise missiles have wrecked two-thirds of Ukraine’s national grid just as freezing temperatures grip the country.

On the 90-minute bus journey from the Polish border to Lviv, with barely a light to be seen in village after village, there is near-silence among the returning Ukrainians as the gloom shows them what a winter of blackouts may be like.

Mobile phones illuminate the passengers’ faces and sometimes bring good news: my neighbour’s parents tell her their electricity has just come back on after an outage of six hours and there is water in the taps.

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Scrolling through messages reminds her how life has changed since all-out war began in February: now a phone app delivers automated air-raid alerts, many close friends are in the army or helping as volunteers, and the tips they swap these days are on the best torches, camping stoves and generators to buy.

She says the energy crisis is instilling new national obsessions and fears: among the former is a mania for trying to keep gadgets fully charged – computers, phones, torches, power banks – while the latter include a terror of getting stuck in a lift during a blackout.

A friend describes the experience: as he ascended to his 15th-storey flat in a Lviv tower block, a power cut stopped the lift between floors. Guided by an engineer who came mercifully quickly to help, he had to unscrew a panel in the roof of the lift, climb on to the top of the cabin and clamber up to where his rescuer held open the lift-shaft doors.

The energy crisis hits the poor hardest, but everyone is affected: Tymofiy Mylovanov, president of the Kyiv School of Economics and a former economy minister, tweets about daily challenges and dilemmas: should he and his wife sleep in a tent inside their flat because it is easier to heat than the bedroom? Is it sensible to use snow from the balcony to flush the toilet when the water is off, or stupid because it makes the flat colder as it melts?

Russia fired more than 70 missiles at Ukrainian infrastructure again on Monday and, though only about 10 evaded the country’s rapidly improving air defence systems, they caused another wave of emergency blackouts in Kyiv, Odesa and elsewhere.

Even during pauses in the bombardment, planned power cuts of several hours are now the norm as workers make repairs in freezing conditions and with a shortage of key components, such as transformers that suit Ukraine’s largely Soviet-era grid.

Critical facilities have priority for scarce electricity, and backup systems have kept the lights on at Lviv’s regional clinical hospital.

“The intensity of our work has increased substantially compared to last year. We’ve been treating many people from central, eastern and southern Ukraine, performing a high number of surgeries day and night, including urgent cases,” says Dmytro Averchuk, a member of the cardiac surgery team led by his father, Vitalii.

The health ministry recommended this week that Ukrainian hospitals postpone elective surgery, and some operating theatres and intensive care beds are already kept free in case of a major emergency, such as a missile strike that causes mass casualties.

Vitalii says these wartime conditions limit the capacity of his department, but his greatest concern is for its dwindling stock of top-quality, western-made prosthetic heart valves; nevertheless, he says “we are ready” for whatever winter may bring.

Five hundred kilometres to the east, snow already lies thick on the ground in Kyiv, where mayor Vitali Klitschko has been chided for allegedly failing to set up enough “invincibility points” – places where people can get warm, find water, charge phones and go online during blackouts; he accuses critics of playing politics at the worst possible time.

“We haven’t needed to use the invincibility points... The power comes and goes in our district, but we can get by,” says Dima Tertychniy, as he walks past Kyiv’s 1,000-year-old St Sophia cathedral with his mother, Tetyana.

If Russians expect to break Ukraine’s spirit “they shouldn’t hold their breath”, she says. “It will all be okay – it will all be Ukraine!” she adds, using a popular rallying cry.

When the Averchuks spoke to The Irish Times in March, Vitalii said Russia’s full-scale invasion was a historic examination of Ukrainian character and nationhood.

Nine months on he says: “We’re passing the test.”