- By Paul Kirby and Paul Adams
- BBC News
Ukrainians enjoy the arrival of spring. The nights are still cold, but they are emerging from a winter of Russian missile fire which has cut off their electricity, heating and water too.
The winter was very harsh but is now over, President Volodymyr Zelensky said. Ukraine was still hot and the country was unbreakable, was the message.
Until Thursday, Ukraine had just gone more than three consecutive weeks without power cuts and even had a surplus in the system.
There had been no Russian attacks for three weeks either, and it looked like Vladimir Putin’s battle to cut supplies to Ukraine was over.
“Yes, we do, but who started it?” he said in December, blaming kyiv.
It was a much more hopeless story at that time. As many as half of the energy infrastructure was damaged and a Ukrainian nuclear security expert warned that the situation was close to critical.
But during those weeks of calm, Russia stockpiled weapons. In the early hours of Thursday, it fired 81 missiles and left four regions struggling with emergency power cuts. As of Friday, half a million people still lacked power in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.
“It’s totally cold now. We have food, but only some of it has been cooked,” Oleksii said as he watched his cellphone’s battery life drop to 14%.
Five hundred people live in his building, and when he went to his local “invincibility center” to turn on his phone, there were too many people with the same idea.
kyiv was also affected and a hospital treating 700 people was without heat and hot water for several hours.
Another 150,000 people were left without power in Zhytomyr, a two-hour drive south of the Belarusian border. The mayor said the next few weeks will be critical and power cuts are looming for this city west of Kyiv.
But, as resident Eugene Herasymchuk ended his work day on a sunny spring day, he was confident about the future.
“We had three weeks without attacks and we had electricity. And the electricity from the system allowed local authorities to start trolleybuses and trams. It was a big step because before that public transport was in break.”
And for many Ukrainians, it wasn’t long before they were back on the grid.
“It’s safe to say that Ukraine has won on the energy front,” said Tetyana Boyko of civic network Opora, praising the fleet of energy workers and international aid. “Let’s pray, but I think the worst-case scenario is over.”
Winter may be over, but Oleksii in Kharkiv believes the battle to save Ukraine’s power supply from Vladimir Putin’s missiles will continue as long as Russia has the ability to strike it.
Every one of Ukraine’s thermal and hydropower plants has been damaged since Russia launched its assault on energy infrastructure last October. kyiv had already lost the use of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, which is in Russian hands.
Substations have been reduced to twisted pieces of metal, unable to turn electricity into power for homes and businesses.
For two weeks in the dead of winter, the BBC followed teams of engineers and technicians rushing to repair missile damage.
A substation has been hit six times by missiles or drones and replacing these damaged transformers will take time.
Transformers quickly became Ukraine’s main requirement. It needs more than the world can produce in a year and so far only one high-voltage transformer has been sent, although dozens of lesser-powered machines have arrived.
As winter progressed, the Ukrainian Armed Forces became more adept at shooting down Russian missiles and drones.
But this week, only 34 of the missiles were destroyed, as Russia used different high-velocity weapons. They included Kh-47 Kinzhal hypersonic missiles as well as anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles.
“They can cause huge, huge destruction,” an industry official said.
Until the start of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine in February 2022, 15 nuclear reactors were in operation at four power plants. Six of these reactors were in Zaporizhzhia, seized by the occupying army at the start of the invasion.
For months, the plant has been at the center of a high-stakes nuclear dispute, amid accusations that Moscow wants to connect it to Russia’s power grid.
The other three power stations are southern Ukraine and Rivne and Khmelnytskyi in the west. Between them, they now produce half of Ukraine’s electricity.
It may sound bleak, but the combination of an unusually mild winter and hard work means Ukraine has pulled away from the abyss and the sense of optimism is palpable.
Power stations have been restored and repaired. An industry source told the BBC that as the days got sunnier and hotter, it would become increasingly difficult for Russian military might to terrorize their country.
The central-eastern city of Dnipro suffered several deadly missile strikes over the winter, and this week was no different.
But there have been no problems for weeks with the energy supply.
“The city has transformed. Finally, the streetlights are back, and it’s not scary to walk the city streets anymore,” said Inna Shtanko, a young mother with a son under two.
Cooking and taking a hot shower are once again part of her family’s daily life. “Our psychological state has improved significantly, as our family and other mothers too can easily plan our day.”
There is a similar story in Kherson, occupied by Russian forces until they retreated across the Dnipro River last November.
Life was tough for several weeks after the Russians left the southern city without basic public services.
“We had no electricity for about a month and a week, then we had it for two hours a day, then gradually it stopped breaking down,” said local entrepreneur Alexei Sandakov.
Now it enjoys a steady power supply, although the strain on the system is far less than before the war as the population of 55,000 is a fraction of what it was before the Russian invasion.
The population has shrunk across Ukraine, with more than eight million refugees beyond its borders, which has also reduced pressure on energy infrastructure. Consumption is down and the refugees have not yet returned, as one official noted.
The general feeling is that the damage caused by this latest wave of missiles will be repaired quickly.
The damage was extensive, but engineers became highly skilled in restoring power within days, even after a major attack.
“It’s like a competition: how fast can they damage us and how fast can we repair. And we win this competition,” said Oleksandr Kharchenko, director of the Energy Industry Research Center of Kiev.
In Zhytomyr, Eugene Herasymchuk thinks things are looking up. “A lot of Ukrainians say it’s better to have a cold winter and a dark winter than 100 years with Russia – so I think we can handle that.”
Ukrainians now have everything going for them, Kharchenko said, from improved weather to support from international donors and professional energy industry personnel. But he is more cautious about the future.
“I’m not saying we won the energy war, but I can say we won the energy battle this winter.”