Russia’s coal war with Ukraine leaves civilians cold

Ukraine’s coal stores dwindle as Russia halts supplies in retaliation for Crimea blackout.

Miners in eastern Ukraine
Coal from Ukrainian mines, like this one in Krasnodon, might not provide a sufficient source of energy for Ukraine this winter [Mstyslav Chernov/AP]

Kiev, Ukraine Flurries of snow have started to fall on Kiev, announcing the start of winter for the residents of the Ukrainian capital.

Further east, in the conflict-riddled regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, the temperatures are regularly well below freezing, and the citizens who remain there, caught between the pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian forces, are already struggling to stay warm as the cold weather sets in.

“The ceasefire is mostly holding, but residents living in conflict-affected areas remain at serious risk of having no heating in places where the temperature drops below 20C in the winter,” Yulia Gorbunova from Human Rights Watch told Al Jazeera.


“Teachers from several schools in places like Avdiivka, Marinka, Krasnoirovka, told us in November that they were already bracing themselves for the approaching winter and had to conduct classes with kids wearing hats, gloves and coats,” Gorbunova said.

She explained that “some schools had to extend autumn holidays while they were figuring out alternative ways of heating their schools, usually by installing coal heating systems”.

Unreliable energy source

Coal, however, might not be a reliable source of energy for Ukraine this winter.

Russia has announced that it will no longer supply coal to its neighbouring country in retaliation for the actions of unidentified rebels who destroyed electricity pylons in Ukraine that were supplying Crimea with electricity.

Despite Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year, Ukraine had continued to supply the peninsula with power and goods until a roadblock, made up mostly of Crimean Tatars and Right Sector supporters, was set up on the Ukrainian side of the border.

RELATED: Putin’s war on the Crimean Tatars

The peninsula has been under blackout conditions since November 22, and Russia has said that coal supplies will not recommence until at least two power lines are restored to the territory.

“Coal supplies have been restricted from uncontrolled territory and from Russia,” Ukrainian Energy Minister Volodymyr Demchyshyn told parliament on November 27, referring to Donbass.

“Right now, our power stations have enough coal reserves in storage to last for at least one month. But in the long-term, problematic questions will arise,” Demchyshyn said.

Not the first time

Nadiya Klymenko, a pensioner from Vinnytsia Oblast, told Al Jazeera that the coal shortage meant they would have to rely on gas for heat, and the prices meant they would only turn on the gas heaters as a last resort.

“Our town is located near a big railway station, so people who live around here almost all work for the railway and were, for a long time, given an allowance of coal. But now, they bring less of it, and it is expensive, too,” Klymenko said.

I want the war to be over. We've had enough of that on our land, so I'll do whatever is needed. I don't care about the coal. I'll live on bread and water if I have to, and just sit by the candle.

by Nadiya Klymenko, pensioner

“We hope they will be delivering coal for the town, but who knows if that’ll happen,” the 60-year-old said.

Supervisory board member of the Institute of Energy Strategy in Ukraine, Yuri Korolchuk, told Al Jazeera that if Ukraine’s energy deficit continued to grow, the country would be experiencing rolling blackouts by January.

“By the end of January, we might very well come to the situation where we have zero coal in storage, and then that’s it,” Korolchuk said. “This sounds kind of apocalyptic or like Armageddon, but there is going to be a blackout.”

But they have experienced blackouts brought on by energy shortfalls before, Klymenko told Al Jazeera. “We have always had candles on hand. Always,” Klymenko said. Yet, despite the difficulties they were likely to face, she added, she still supported the Crimea blockade that had sparked this most recent crisis.

“How can we ask the West to impose sanctions on Russia but at the same time continue to trade with them? We need to teach them a lesson, for God’s sake,” reasoned Klymenko.

“We will probably be cold, but we can’t just think of ourselves, I guess we’ll have to make do. At least it will be our decision,” the pensioner asserted.

Overseas coal and limitations

Demchyshyn, the energy minister, said about 250,000 tonnes of coal is en route from South Africa and is expected to dock this month. He added that the government was in talks to increase the supply.

“The thing is, we need 10 times more than we can process in the ports,” Korolchuk explained to Al Jazeera.

“We are able to get a lot of coal imported but the capacity of our ports is only 400,000 tonnes of any bulk products.”

Of the 2.2 million tonnes Ukraine was able to stockpile this year, half was anthracite coal, the most useful in terms of heating. Of that, about 900,000 tonnes remain – a supply that could see Ukraine through roughly until January.

Korolchuk added that the cost of importing coal from so far overseas could be prohibitive, especially given the plunging value of the Ukrainian hryvna.

“Coal we were buying from the annexed territories, the price is 1,100 hryvna [$46] per tonne,” Korolchuk said, referring to Donetsk and Luhansk, both of which have declared themselves “people’s republics”.

“The coal that we’re buying from South Africa, we’re paying about $100 per tonne. That’s about 2,000 to 2,500 hryvna per tonne. The weaker it is, the more we are paying,” explained Korolchuk. 

In 2014, mines in the east were producing about 24 million tonnes of anthracite coal a year. Now, because of the war and economic concerns, production has dropped to about 12 million tonnes.

Of that, Korolchuk said, Ukraine has access to about six million tonnes, but the supply is irregular. “Because of the political issues there, it is very difficult to predict; one minute we are getting the delivery, and then we are not.”

Ukraine is expected to reach an energy deficit of about four gigawatts by mid-December. According to Korolchuk, anything above eight gigawatts means an entire region of the country will experience a blackout.

Of the regions, the south will be the first to have an outage, he added.

Scheduling blackouts

“There are good people working for the state company, and they are building the schedule for the rolling blackouts, and they try to schedule it in a way that schools and hospital are not affected,” Korolchuk said.

Explosion leaves two million without power in Crimea

As the deficit increases, the more difficult it will be to maintain a system, explained the energy analyst.

“If we live in terms of being in a crisis, and we economise and use the rolling blackouts, then we can survive through the winter.”

But the strategy is not a long-term sustainable solution. “We can’t continually live like this. It can only be a month or so of economising,” Korolchuk said. “It all depends on Crimea; there is a direct correlation between the situations.” 

For the 60-year-old pensioner, the ultimatum is either being independent and cold, or risking a return to the Soviet era.

“I don’t want the return to Stalin times when people were told what to do. I support Tatars – good for them. They are brave, at least,” Klymenko said.

“I want the war to be over. We’ve had enough of that on our land, so I’ll do whatever is needed. I don’t care about the coal. I’ll live on bread and water if I have to, and just sit by the candle.”

Follow Philippa Stewart on Twitter: @flip_stewart

Source: Al Jazeera