Wind and sleet greeted the first spring morning in Kyiv. Despite the miserable weather, March 1 marks another victory for Ukraine; the survival of the dreaded winter.
Although outside temperatures hovered around 2C, inside the heating is almost uncomfortably hot and despite Russia’s best efforts, the lights are on and water is flowing from the taps. The fears of enduring Kyiv’s brutal winters without the basic necessities have subsided and the population will defiantly make it through the last few cold weeks before the return of the warm weather.
“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin suffered his fifth major defeat since the day of the full-scale invasion – Ukraine defeated his winter terror. We survived the most difficult winter in our history," Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Facebook on March 1.
But just a few months ago, the end of winter seemed a lifetime away for those in the capital following Russia’s relentless attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. Since October 10 Russia has launched nearly 20 such mass strikes in an attempt to starve Ukrainians of heat and electricity and beat them into submission.
The first attack caught the country off guard, particularly cities like Kyiv which are far from the front line. As a result, Ukraine’s power grid balanced on a precarious ledge, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy warning refugees in Europe not to return for fear of overloading the system. At the same time, there were talks of evacuating Kyiv in November as residents faced "the worst winter since World War 2". Some opted to move to country houses where the secure supply of firewood guaranteed heating.
Rolling blackouts were implemented across the country and by December the situation was looking bleak, with residents in Kyiv recalling days of having no water, electricity and heating. During the worst period, supermarkets shut as food stored in freezers began to rot, whilst others hurriedly cooked all their meat, in some cases using camping stoves in place of electric hobs, as refrigerators were no longer reliable.
Outside, the absence of functional street and traffic lights led to an increase in car accidents; however, surprisingly the crime rate didn’t increase, likely due to the 11pm curfew. Nevertheless, the darkness weighed heavy on the shoulders of residents who battled to continue life as normal.
Some of the hardest hit were those outside the capital in the formerly occupied suburbs. At the start of autumn, workers and humanitarian organisations like the Red Cross were desperately restoring roofs and windows of homes to guarantee warm shelter in the coming months.
However, with such widespread destruction in satellite towns such as Irpin, thousands of residents have been forced into temporary housing. The residents, many of whom are elderly, struggled during blackouts as temperatures plummeted and the thin walls did little to keep in the heat.
With the situation deteriorating, Kyiv’s allies and Ukrainian companies ramped up support. The European Union sent hundreds of millions in aid packages as well as crucial equipment such as generators and transformers to replace equipment at power facilities damaged by Russian missile and drone strikes.
But the most impressive feat has been carried out by Ukraine’s largest private power company, DTEK, which has rapidly restored infrastructure, including four thermal power plants (TPPs), with plans to repair six more by the end of the heating season. Millions of homes now have power thanks to the company and repair workers who spend countless, dangerous hours mending equipment.
DTEK also ensured that temporary housing in Irpin, home to 400 internally displaced people, had access to electricity, helping keep some of Ukraine’s most vulnerable citizens alive. As a result, the residents have had electricity continuously since December, despite multiple missile strikes over the last two months.
However, perhaps the real sign of victory for the capital was the return of street lights in late February. It’s taken citizens a while to get used to the light again, having grown accustomed to navigating the city in the pitch black.
Generators of varying sizes are a new addition to Kyiv’s streets, guarding the entrance to nearly every business and powering entire shopping centres. Advertising for generators has taken over billboards and subway stations, with citizens opting to purchase their own in order to connect to the internet and continue work during blackouts.
Moreover, improved air defence has seen Ukraine increasingly take down missiles and drones destined to cause destruction. In a recent attempt, air defence shot down six Iranian-made Shahed drones in the Kyiv region in the early hours of February 28.
Kyiv’s citizens have strong faith in the city’s air defences, and the fear of mass attacks has somewhat dissipated, with air-raid warnings no longer carrying the same weight as at the end of last year. Pedestrians and cars continue about their day unphased as the wailing sirens echo throughout the city.
Nevertheless, the threat still remains high and missiles hit infrastructure and civilian housing in Kremenchuk on March 1. Yuriy Ignat, spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force, also said recently that Russia is using drones to deplete Ukrainian air defence assets.
Allies are aware that Ukraine’s ammunition is running low, and pledged last month to provide further support for air defence.
“They [Ukraine] need to have as many air defence capabilities and as much ammunition (...) as possible,” a senior US administration official said, the Financial Times reported in mid-February.
For now, Kyiv emerges from the dark depths of winter victorious. The capital is well prepared for emergency situations and although further strikes are likely, most residents feel the future is brighter than the horrors of December.