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How Russia is weaponizing winter in Ukraine

December 7, 2022

Russia is expanding its attacks on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. At the start of winter, there are hundreds of thousands of people without electricity or heating. DW reporter Jan-Phillipp Scholz met some of them.

Four children stand next to a snowman, which has a carrot for a nose
Polina and her friends are pround of their first snowman of winterImage: DW

The most beautiful time of the year is beginning ⁠— at least according to Polina and her friends. They've already written their wish list for Santa Claus, and it's even starting to snow. Most of the other children have left their remote villages on the northeastern edge of Ukraine's Kharkiv region since the Russian invasion. The school there has been closed for a while now. The first snow of the year is a welcome change.

Concern about dropping temperatures

"Now we can start ice-skating and have snowball fights!" says Polina excitedly. The 10-year-old has already built her first snowman of the season with her friends. They even managed to find a carrot for its nose. And according to weather forecasts, their snowman won't be melting any time soon. Temperatures are predicted to drop as low as -12 degrees Celsius (10 degrees Fahrenheit) in the coming days.

But the majority of adults in the region aren't exactly thrilled about the weather forecast. On the contrary: the falling temperatures raise concerns that they might not survive the coming months. 

"It's getting colder here every night. I don't even want to think about what that could lead to," says Iryna. She's a retiree who lives on the edge of Izium in a prefabricated apartment from the days of the Soviet Union. Her 6-story building has been hit several times by artillery fire. Almost all of her neighbors have left, but Iryna stayed.

"Where would I go?" she asks. "To escape I'd at least need a car and some savings. The majority of the older people here can't just leave so easily. Besides, it's almost certain that looters will come if no one stays here."

Iryna invested the last of her money in new windows. Her old ones were all destroyed by the pressure from explosions. She's patched up the holes with thick blankets to reduce the amount of cold air that enters her apartment.

Iryna stands in her appartment with a jacket and thick jumper on
It's getting colder every the day inside her appartment, says IrynaImage: DW

The central heating for the entire unit was also destroyed by shelling last month. In the fall, volunteers came by and brought Iryna an electric heater she can use during the winter months. She's thankful to them to this day, but it's still often cold in her home.

For weeks, Russia has been rapidly expanding its war against Ukraine's energy infrastructure. Power outages are now increasingly common in parts of Ukraine.

"We recently didn't have electricity for two days," Iryna recalls. In situations like that, she has only one option: dress more warmly and use up the last of her gas reserves for some hot tea.

Elderly won't leave their homes

The elderly are among those in the gravest danger along the front due to the dropping temperatures. But many don't want to leave their homes, even if they have family members who could get them out of the country or at least bring them to regions that are less devastated by the war, .

Until a few days ago, Oxana Melnyk's mother lived in a village on the other side of the front, in a region of eastern Ukraine currently occupied by Russia.

For weeks she tried to convince her mother to leave the village. She warned her about the increasingly intense battles in the region and about the coming winter. But the 70-year-old refused. "She thought she'd manage to survive somehow, and that it would soon be over," Oxana says. "But now everyone knows it's a long way from being over."

In the end, Melnyk summoned up all of her courage and hopped into her 40-year-old Lada. She and an acquaintance drove along the destroyed streets of the corridor that used to connect the territories controlled by the Ukrainians with those controlled by the Russians.

Appearing in person, she was able to convince her mother to pack up her bags and leave. "I just repeatedly explained to her that it was a matter of her living or dying. What has true value? Not this apartment or some car or something like that. Only living matters in the end."

Oxana Melnyk sands in front of her car, which has its bonnet open
Oxana Melnyk fetched her mother in Russian-occupied Ukraine with a 40-year-old LadaImage: DW

Safety and warmth in Zaporizhzhya

On their journey back, the women's car got bogged in the mud many times. They were also stopped at dozens of Russian and Ukrainian checkpoints. To make things worse, their ancient Lada had engine problems.

Finally, they reached the southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhya. In addition to being the administrative center of the region, a humanitarian center has been set up there specifically for refugees from Russian-occupied territories.

For the mother and daughter, it's the first somewhat safe place they've reached in days. More importantly, it's a place where they can finally get warm. In the safety of Zaporizhzhya, Melnyk acknowledges that she had initially refused to believe that Russia was weaponizing the winter weather against civilians.

Now she's changed her mind. "I just pray that God gives them a reason to stop," Melnyk sighs. "May they go in peace. They should just leave our country so that no more people have to die."

The two women don't know what the future holds for them. For now, they want to head to Odesa because Melnyk has an apartment there.

But it's not safe in Odesa either. Like many other places in Ukraine, the city is a frequent target for airstrikes. But at least the winter months in the coastal city on the Black Sea aren't as brutal as they are in the east of the country.

Ukrainian civilians try to flee Russian-occupied territory

This article has been translated from German.