Losing on the battlefield, Russia has weaponised winter in Ukraine. To avoid a humanitarian disaster, the EU and its partners must turbo-boost their support.
The strategy of a war of annihilation against civilians, used in Syria and Chechnya, is now being implemented in Ukraine. After suffering defeat on the battlefield, Russia is weaponising winter and has launched a full-scale assault on Ukraine’s critical and civilian infrastructure. The intention is to bring Ukraine to its knees by freezing and starving its population. While Ukrainians remain resolute in their determination to keep fighting no matter what the Kremlin does, this winter could be life-threatening for millions. To avoid a humanitarian catastrophe, the EU and its partners must rapidly scale up their energy, humanitarian, military, and economic support.
Putin’s winter assault
Since 10 October, Russia has launched hundreds of missiles and drone strikes on Ukraine’s vital energy infrastructure. It is the biggest attack on an energy system in European history. More than half of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure is damaged, including the power generating and distribution infrastructure.
Russia targets the connection systems (transformer high-voltage substations and power distribution equipment) that link Ukraine’s entire energy system and deliver electricity to consumers, including hospitals, schools, water treatment and sewage companies.
It has also damaged, destroyed, and occupied power generating infrastructure – several thermal, combined heat and power plants, and hydroelectric plants. 90% of Ukraine’s wind power and more than 40% of its solar energy sources are either damaged or occupied. While the three nuclear power plants controlled by Ukraine were not directly targeted because of extensive damage to the power grid, their essential power has been cut off at times, resulting in temporary emergency shutdowns.
Forced power cuts to allow engineers to stabilise and repair power grids are frequent and, occasionally, country-wide.
A humanitarian crisis
The war has left an estimated 6.5 million internally displaced people, while a further 7.89 million are refugees in European countries (as of 30 November). These numbers are likely to increase significantly.
With some 17.7 million people in a perilous situation, humanitarian assistance needs have skyrocketed. Residents in recently liberated territories, including in the Kharkiv, Kherson, Donetsk, and Dnipropetrovsk oblasts, are in crisis. After months under brutal Russian occupation, they are struggling to stay alive.
In addition to heating and electricity cut-offs, there are shortages of food, medicine, and drinking water. Residents of Kherson City, located within the range of Russian artillery, are subjected to non-stop bombardments. Providing more humanitarian aid is vital. Ukraine has prepared a list of requests, which is regularly updated.
International support to date
Since the start of the war, Ukraine has received substantial direct humanitarian assistance. Following the attacks on critical infrastructure, the international community and donor organisations announced additional support. For example, the European Commission provides humanitarian aid to Ukraine via the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. The latest support includes energy supplies, shelter items, water trucks, and buses. Since the start of the war, the EU’s total material aid channelled to Ukraine amounts to over €450 million, on top of the €523 million in financial humanitarian assistance.
Individual member states are also providing bilateral financial and material assistance along with the US and other international partners. Washington recently announced a new $53 million package to purchase power grid equipment, in addition to an earlier $55 million package for emergency energy sector support.
Assistance from international humanitarian organisations has also been vital. Along with Ukraine’s civil society and volunteer groups, they can access hard-to-reach locations to deliver relevant assistance. Cities, too, play an important role by offering bilateral support for Ukrainian cities, while national and international companies can donate equipment that could mean the difference between life and death.
Surviving winter: Priority areas
Ukraine urgently needs an unending supply of spare parts and equipment for repairing damaged energy infrastructure. This includes mobile substations, power transformers, switchgear and cables. While engineers work around the clock to restore power, persistent Russian strikes require frequent repairs. Large stockpiles must be sourced and safely stored. One possibility could be stockpiling spare parts at the border of neighbouring states. Unfortunately, most states/companies do not have large stockpiles of parts. One solution could be to use 3D printing technology, which enables some spare parts to be stored in a virtual inventory and produced when needed.
Ukraine’s state grid operator Ukrenergo is currently working on enabling electricity deliveries of up to 500 MW from the EU. Ukraine has carried out test supplies of electricity from Romania and Slovakia. However, a special mechanism needs to be developed to guarantee these imports and compensate for price differences, as the price of electricity in Europe is significantly higher than in Ukraine.
Delivering larger-scale generators is also crucial while other innovative options are being discussed, including Turkish floating “power ships” that are able to supply power to up to 1 million homes.
Also, Ukrainian energy companies are working on installing battery storage capacity, which can play an important role in shoring up energy security. The World Bank is financing a tender to equip hydroelectric power plants in Ukraine with battery energy storage systems (BESS) to provide fast and efficient frequency response ancillary services to Ukraine’s grid and help balance the power system.
A game-changer would be the deployment of air defence and anti-drone systems to prevent further damage to Ukraine’s power grid. Ukraine has already received advanced air defence systems from Germany, Norway-US (IRIS-T and NASAMS), but much more systems are needed. Kyiv has called on NATO and all nations that possess such systems to offer them to Ukraine, along with the necessary training for the troops that will use them. NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, has also urged countries to provide Ukraine with such systems and other weapons.
Winterisation assistance needs to be scaled up across the country to help people survive the winter. This includes supplying generators, mobile radiators, and emergency Shelter Kits (ESKs).
Priority needs to be given to more basic items such as warm clothing, thermal blankets and fuelling homes. Along with medical kits, medicines, food, and water purification tablets. In addition, MedEvac vehicles, intended for use in extreme conditions, and ambulances are also necessary.
Also, stationery and mobile heating points equipped with generators, phone chargers, and other basic items ensure residents can congregate in warmth. In Kyiv, more than 1000 heating points are being set up. While mobile teams of psychologists would ensure people deal with mental health issues.
Assistance should be targeted at the local, regional, and national levels. If the situation in Kyiv and other large cities further deteriorates, people may move further West or to smaller towns and villages.
Ensuring the sustainability of the Ukrainian Armed Forces is imperative. Military aid should be ramped up to exploit the present situation on the battlefield, which favours Ukraine. With its military in disarray, Russia needs time to train and deploy new units. Furthermore, the next package of EU sanctions should strengthen sanctions against the Russian military industry to make it unable to manufacture missiles and advanced weaponry.
The EU also needs to resolve its problems with the European Peace Facility (EPF). Failing to reimburse member states for the costs of the weapons that they have given to Ukraine prevents further donations. However, it is encouraging to hear that the EU plans to top up the EPF’s fund, which currently stands at €5.7 billion, with a further €5.5 billion.
Financial and economic support
The war has had a devastating impact on Ukraine’s economy. GDP dropped by around 30% y/y in the first nine months of 2022, and exports by 31.4% y/y. Ukraine will need additional international financial support to keep its economy afloat, pay salaries and pensions, etc. For 2023, Kyiv asked partners for a minimum of $55 billion (loans and grants) to support the budget deficit, including $17 billion for the reconstruction of social and critical infrastructure in the energy sector. During the next year, Ukraine requires a more stable, regular and predictable mechanism for financial support flows from international partners, without delays and with strong coordination among donors. A swift approval and allocation of the new EU package of financial aid for Ukraine worth €18 billion is crucial.
The EU’s decision to implement trade liberalisation measures by completely eliminating all import tariffs and tariff quotas and opening its market to Ukrainian industrial goods and agricultural products until 5 June 2023 has boosted the recovery of the wartime economy and critically needed foreign currency revenues. Along with the Grain Agreement, Ukraine’s new ‘Grain from Ukraine’ initiative, EU-Ukraine Solidarity Lanes and the road transport agreement. These temporary support measures must be prolonged and further expanded.
All hands on deck
Ukrainians are going through what is probably the most difficult winter in the country’s modern history. Putin will continue to use extreme brutality to leave Ukraine cold and dark this winter, putting the lives of millions at risk. While much has been done, much more can and must be done if Ukrainians are going to survive this winter.
Amanda Paul is a Senior Policy Analyst in the Europe in the World programme at the European Policy Centre.
Svitlana Taran is a Ukrainian Research Fellow in the Europe in the World programme at the European Policy Centre.
This commentary is part of the Ukraine’s European Future project.