How Ukrainians are battling the cold during Russia's war

Al Jazeera speaks to people in Ukraine who are enduring cold temperatures without regular heat or electricity.

Interactive -cover 2 ukraine winter

This is the third story in a three-part series on staying warm this winter. Read part one: How to beat rising household energy costs and part two: Winter woes for the most vulnerable.

A noisy gasoline generator sputters into action outside a series of high-rise apartment blocks in Kyiv. The streets hum with the sounds of backup power systems all buzzing to keep the Ukrainian capital running.

It is early February, and the monolithic white and beige structures, which have been blanketed in darkness, start to light up flat by flat as the electricity surges through the buildings.

On one of the top floors, accessible by a rickety, claustrophobic lift, live Viktoria Beliakova, a 35-year-old financial consultant; her husband, Valentyn Hlyboky, a 38-year-old IT specialist; and their 12-year-old daughter, Vlada.

Interactive - Family copy

Freezing temperatures

The cold temperatures that have swept through the apartments during the winter have caused what Viktoria describes as "a very difficult period” for the family.

Russia has been accused of weaponising the winter with its incessant attacks on electricity infrastructure. There has been a lack of sufficient heating as temperatures in Ukraine have regularly dropped below -7C (20F) from December to March.


Attacks against Ukraine’s infrastructure

Since October 10, Russia has launched a wave of attacks that have killed civilians and destroyed or damaged houses, power stations and other key energy infrastructure across Ukraine.

“We assumed this is why Russia started attacks on the energy infrastructure exactly at the beginning of October,” says Maryna Ilchuk, a lawyer who advises domestic and foreign companies in Ukraine in the energy, oil and gas sectors. "They could have started them before, but the final aim of the attacks is to make civilians suffer and to force more people to flee from the country because it’s unbearable to live under conditions like this."

According to estimates by the Kyiv School of Economics, as of December, Russia’s invasion had caused $54bn in direct damage to Ukraine's housing and $35.6bn to its infrastructure.

More than half of Ukraine’s power-generating infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed, forcing energy suppliers to distribute power by district for set periods of time.

In late November, Ukrenergo, Ukraine’s power grid company, imposed emergency rolling blackouts to distribute the available electricity around the country.

The vast majority of housing destruction has occurred in the eastern regions of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, where fighting has been concentrated. The region of Kyiv has also seen considerable destruction of residential housing.

Although the rolling blackouts largely stopped in February, just this week, Russia fired more than 80 missiles at cities in Ukraine, including Kyiv, where some parts of the capital have been left without electricity. It was the biggest attack against Ukraine for weeks, which also resulted in a loss of power at Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant and blackouts across the country.

In the early days of the war, Viktoria and her family had hunkered down in their apartment as they watched Russian tanks rumble over the horizon and lay siege to the capital’s outskirts.

While Russian forces were pushed out of Kyiv in April, life in wartime Ukraine has continued to be psychologically and emotionally exhausting for the family and has forced the couple, says Viktoria, “to build up a resilience to the difficulties of war”.

Sharp decline in energy generation

Since the start of the war, Ukraine’s energy generation has drastically declined.

According to data from Ukrenergo, it has dropped by at least 30 percent since the start of the war. The sharpest fall was in nuclear energy, which provides more than half of Ukraine’s electricity.


Eight to 12 hours without heating

In the family’s kitchen beneath white walls decorated with Vlada’s oil paintings, sit a thermos and a thermo pot filled with hot water. These two recent investments help Viktoria cook “fast meals”, such as couscous or porridge in a bag, during blackouts.

The family has also installed thick carpets across the house and kept themselves warm by wearing large woolly socks and fleece jumpers and wrapping themselves in large winter blankets.

The family has also installed thick carpets across the house and kept themselves warm by wearing large woolly socks and fleece jumpers and wrapping themselves in large winter blankets.

Many other flats in the development - without warm materials or good insulation, for example - experienced the cold more severely, which was especially difficult for elderly residents. So together, the residents of all 210 flats decided to invest about $3,000 to buy two generators to help keep the heating turned on.

For Viktoria, as well as many other families, the generators have made a real difference. Vlada has been able to attend school online without major disruptions while Valentyn and Viktoria have been able to work from their laptops.

Before the generators were installed, the family would go for eight to 12 hours without heating, and the temperature inside would drop to around 10C (50F). Fortunately, the couple had installed insulated windows before the war, which meant their flat never reached freezing conditions.

Many residents were worse off, so officials set up shelters known as points of invincibility to provide residents with heat and water. The shelters also have electricity, mobile communications, internet, and first aid.

Interactive - Point of Invincibility 1

In November, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that more than 4,000 points of invincibility had been established and more were planned.

Viktoria remains houseproud despite the difficulties. She keeps the plants littered around the apartment alive with portable USB lights and heaters, which remain running through the blackouts.

“We have the option to put on the water boiler, but this is a very heavy pressure on the national system, and we understand that excessive or selfish consumption for extra comfort is not the right choice in these times,” she says.

“I am aware that our family is spending this winter in unacceptable conditions, but there are people in much worse conditions and colder in these times," Viktoria says. "Minimum sufficiency is the motto of our family for this winter."

Interactive - Soldier copy

Staying warm on the battlefield

Anton Anoshyn, a stocky, shaven-headed 39-year-old colonel, relaxes in a small house in rural northwestern Ukraine. Behind him is a simple fireplace that emits a steady stream of heat, a welcome break from weeks of training soldiers for combat in freezing conditions.

Anton had been a full-time live-action medieval role-play actor before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

As Russian forces laid siege to his home city of Kyiv in the early days of the war, he signed up with the territorial forces and was eventually transferred to the regular army and sent to the front lines. His previously outgoing, amicable personality had become hardened by the realities of war, and today, he appears more subdued and direct in his speech.

But behind the gruff exterior is still the softly spoken, loving father to a young son and doting husband to his wife, Ludmila Antonshyna, an articulate woman with short, curly red hair and a beaming smile.

It’s a rare day off, and he has been allowed to visit her in the Zhytomyr region. She can’t help but sneak up behind him, hug and kiss his cheeks while he provides a complex, technical run-through of his heating equipment.

In a darkened room behind the fireplace lies a member of his unit who has just returned from the front lines around Bakhmut, a city in eastern Ukraine that has seen months of bitter fighting. “He is in a difficult psychological state” right now, Anton says. “I remember my first time on the front lines. It was a shocking experience.”

It is not just artillery bombardments and gunfire that members of his unit have had to contend with during the past few months. They are also in a battle to stay warm.

Around Bakhmut, Anton says, no utilities are available, forcing soldiers in the trenches and at the checkpoints to find creative solutions to keep themelves warm.

Interactive - Trenches
Source: Maxar Technologies

Anton had recently been transferred from Bakhmut to train new recruits on how to prepare for freezing conditions.

“My unit usually often carries a gas canister with a ceramic heater for warmth,” he says, adding that it is a useful, inexpensive solution for situations such as guarding a checkpoint but it is less useful if you are indoors because the gas eats away at the oxygen in a room.

It is also not useful near the front line because this device will show up on the enemy's thermal imaging devices, and it won’t be long before “you will get hit”, he says.

In addition to small-scale solutions, Ukrainian soldiers are provided with winter uniforms, which the army switched to from mid-October.

Different versions of the field uniform are worn at different temperatures. To keep warm, soldiers wear up to four layers of clothing.

The first two layers consist of warming underwear and a warming suit with two layers of winter socks. Over that, soldiers wear an insulation suit made of a fleece-like synthetic fabric.

In milder conditions, soldiers then top off their uniform with a wind and waterproof suit with synthetic tape covering the seams to prevent moisture from leaking in.

In colder conditions, soldiers wear the full winter suit which is made of knitted synthetic fibre and is wind and waterproof. There are also reinforcing pads on the elbows, knees, shoulders and lower part of the back of the jacket. Gloves are made of fleece, and the linings are reinforced with leather on the palms. A tube scarf made of fleece is also used in the winter.

Interactive - Winter suit 1 edit font

‘This is not Call of Duty’

On a table in front of him, Anton methodically lays out a number of devices he uses to keep himself warm.

The first is a sleek-looking catalytic heater with a steel case wrapped in red velvet. He flips it open to reveal a stick of wooden charcoal - slightly larger than a cigarette - encased in a layer of mineral wool. He pulls out a small tin of lighter fluid, which he pours onto the end of the charcoal, lights it and blows on it until it glows red. He then flips it shut.

This device, which stays warm for five to six hours, has been essential for drying wet socks and shoes, which Antons says are often a “soldier’s biggest problem” in the cold. It can also be wrapped in a sock and placed in a sleeping bag at night.

Next, Anton pulls up a pack of air-activated heat packs, which he says are popular among soldiers to warm their hands and feet. The packs are not reusable, he says, so bringing too many can weigh a soldier down.

“You should have something light and functional, so if you chose between body armour or a heater, you chose armour,” he says firmly.

He then pulls out a tin, which contains a small candle inside. This is useful for cooking and does not show up on most heat-seeking technology, he says. Many civilians provide Anton and his men with homemade versions made from old cans of tuna or cat food.

Finally, he says, a good sleeping bag and set-up for staying warm at night are essential for survival. “You are given maybe two weeks' notice to go to the front, and this is enough time to prepare a good sleeping system with a bag with a Gore-Tex [a breathable, waterproof fabric] membrane, layers inside, maybe a special fleece or thermals and aluminium foil,” he says.

When many people first go to the front lines, they have a “romanticised version of war, but this is not Call of Duty”, Anton says, referring to the popular video game. “It is hard and horrible.”

Interactive - Winter suit 1-2

As Ukraine marked the first day of spring on March 1, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a statement, “We survived the most difficult winter in our history. It was cold and dark, but we were unbreakable.”

Yet Anton recalls one friend who slept three days and three nights outside without proper thermal sleep material and was found in a critical condition one morning.

He was rushed to hospital, but Anton has not received an update on his condition. “Maybe he stayed asleep forever, or maybe he had his legs amputated,” he says with a matter-of-fact tone. “People who are not prepared for the cold can have their lives changed forever.”

Source: Al Jazeera