How Russia is weaponizing winter in Ukraine Ukraine says Russia is using the cold as a weapon against Ukrainians, by targeting the country's ability to heat and power homes. Repair crews are struggling to restore power to damaged areas.

How Russia is weaponizing the Ukrainian winter

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Ukrainian government says Russian missile and drone strikes have disabled nearly half of the country's energy systems. Ukrainian officials believe the targeted strikes are intended to break their population's will to fight as temperatures dip. NPR's Nathan Rott reports on Russia's efforts to weaponize the coming winter.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: The electrical substation Mykhailo Voinov wants to show us sits at the end of a rubble-strewn dirt road past a red toy car half buried in mud. He opens a gashed metal door to show us the equipment inside.

MYKHAILO VOINOV: (Through interpreter) There are a lot of damage from shrapnel, but this one is the worst.

ROTT: He reaches into the substation and knocks on its main component, a transformer.

VOINOV: (Speaking Russian).

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

VOINOV: (Through interpreter) You see? The sound is the same. It means that there is no oil there.

ROTT: It's empty.

VOINOV: (Through interpreter) So I think there's a hole somewhere.

ROTT: Voinov is an electrician in this northeast corner of Ukraine that was formerly occupied by Russians before Ukraine took it back. But you can still hear the sound of artillery and tanks fighting like thunder in the distance.

How long do you think it's going to take for Ukraine to fix all this stuff, all the electrical stuff?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Speaking Russian).

VOINOV: (Sighing).

ROTT: A couple of years, at least, he says, and thousands of dollars for this one substation alone. Russia's attacks on Ukraine's energy and heating infrastructure have been going on since the start of its invasion nearly nine months ago, but they've intensified immensely as winter has approached, with repeated near weekly attacks targeting thermal power plants, electrical substations and centralized heating facilities. In an email to NPR, Ukraine's energy ministry says the attacks have intensified significantly because of Russia's losses on the battlefield. Their goal, the energy ministry says, is to destroy Ukraine's entire energy supply chain. In big cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv, power outages and blackouts are now a way of life. At small, heavily damaged villages like this one in northeastern Ukraine, the few residents who remain are planning to be without power for months. Oleksandr Lysytskyi is relying on a wood-fired boiler to warm his home.

Are you worried about it being too cold this winter?

OLEKSANDR LYSYTSKYI: (Through interpreter) We've got the wood, but shh.

ROTT: Shh because he's not supposed to have it. The wood he's collecting comes from the mine-riddled forest behind his home.

LYSYTSKYI: (Through interpreter) There are a lot of broken trees there, so we can just collect it.

ROTT: At a picnic table outside Lysytskyi's home next to a shattered Buddha statute that sits next to a small pond, Mykhailo Voinov, the electrician, uses jars of cookies and mugs of steaming coffee to explain what Russia is doing to Ukraine's energy sector. Lysytskyi and his wife, Svitlana Maliarova, listen intently.

VOINOV: (Through interpreter) This is power plant.

ROTT: There are power sources, gas and coal thermal power plants, hydroelectric dams, nuclear power stations. And then there are the series of substations that help distribute that power.

VOINOV: (Through interpreter) So that's why they target not this, not the power plants, but the substations.

ROTT: Because then you can't move any of that power to any of the smaller substations or to people.

VOINOV: Da. Da.

ROTT: Attacks that also make it harder for Ukraine to pull in electricity from Europe. Oleksandr Kharchenko, the director of the Energy Industry Research Center, says Russia knows this. That's why in the last two months, they've specifically targeted these types of facilities.

OLEKSANDR KHARCHENKO: Substations, it's a lot of them. It's not possible to cover each of them by special air defense. That's why they're more vulnerable.

ROTT: More vulnerable than larger power stations to the kinds of long-range missile and drone strikes that Russia now depends on. Marysia Zapasnik, the International Rescue Committee's Ukraine director, says NGOs like hers have been trying to prepare people for the cold, giving out electric heat lamps and wool blankets. But she says...

MARYSIA ZAPASNIK: The assistance provided by humanitarian NGOs, by the U.N., will not be enough. It's simply not enough. The number of people involved, if there are large parts of the country that have absolutely no source of heating, for sure, we will need a lot more assistance.

ROTT: From countries such as the U.S., which recently announced $55 million in assistance specifically for heating and repairing homes. Everywhere you go in Ukraine, people are preparing, storing firewood, fixing windows with plastic sheets and plywood. In Izium, a northeastern Ukrainian town that was occupied by Russia, Halyna Zahorodnikh walks up a cold set of stairs to her one-bedroom apartment. The 71-year-old spent much of the invasion living in her apartment building's basement with more than 100 of her neighbors. Now she's back in her damaged home. A small electric heat lamp given to her by an aid organization is the only source of heat in her home.

HALYNA ZAHORODNIKH: (Through interpreter) Thank god it's a good heater. It really warms (ph).

ROTT: Zahorodnikh is planning to spend the winter here at home, even though electricity has been intermittent and the gas line has been punctured by shrapnel.

What happens if electricity goes out? How will you stay warm in here?

ZAHORODNIKH: (Speaking Russian).

ROTT: "Honestly, I don't know what I'll do," she says. "I don't want to go anywhere else. Maybe," she says with a smile, "I'll burn my books."

ZAHORODNIKH: (Through interpreter) We'll make it work.

ROTT: Make it work because what else, she asks, is she supposed to do? Nathan Rott, NPR News, Izium, Ukraine.

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