Grim winter takes hold in Ukraine: US and its NATO allies need to

MUKACHEVO, UKRAINE – In this once-bustling city near the Slovak border, a brutal winter of sub-zero temperatures is fast taking hold.

With electricity in high demand, Ukrainians are bundled up around space heaters in multiple layers of clothing. Families buy wood, mend windows, and hover around cast iron stoves to keep warm. The elderly are bracing for what could be the worst winter in decades.

The city only had power for a few hours each day during my visit, now a regular routine, as Putin’s constant shelling of power plants has destroyed nearly 40 percent of energy-producing capacity here and elsewhere.

The entire country is one missile strike away from a catastrophic and total blackout.

People here are suffering — more widely and more dramatically than just two weeks ago, when I was in Ukraine last.

Nine and a half months have passed, and the west is still not “getting it.” 

With the country’s infrastructure now failing at such a critical time, Ukraine is at risk more than ever from suffering a humanitarian crisis the likes of which Europe has not seen since World War II.

Rumor has it that Putin is going to launch another strike soon, and that could completely close down critical infrastructure; in effect, freezing people to death.

Kyiv currently has only three or four hours of power a day, if that.

I recently spoke with an energy expert on the ground here, and he told me that Ukraine’s electricity network is overloaded and might give way even without a strike. The power grid was not built for the current load or transmission.

Having been part of the process of integrating the Ukrainian and European power grids during my time at USAID, I can tell you firsthand how fragile that system is. USAID has been raising red flags for years, citing the need to couple the networks to reduce Ukraine’s vulnerability to Russia. USAID’s assistance and support were key for allowing Ukraine to disconnect from the Russian grid the day of the invasion, two years ahead of schedule.

As I wrote in April, we cannot be held hostage by a threat of escalation and watch thousands of people die — possibly more, if Russia were ultimately to prevail. 

It is clear that Putin and his army want to erase Ukrainian culture off the map; why else would they be targeting civilians?

At the NATO Madrid Summit in June, Allied leaders agreed to a strengthened package of support for Ukraine, which included support in secure communications, fuel, medical supplies, body armor, winter clothing, equipment to counter mines and chemical and biological threats, and portable anti-drone systems.

We need NATO to step up distribution of sorely needed humanitarian aid to Ukrainians ahead of the worst of what will be a challenging and difficult winter.

It is also time for the United States and NATO to begin providing more defensive weapons to Ukraine.  As it stands now with the current defensive systems in place, only 85-90 percent of the incoming missiles are destroyed. Even 10 percent of the shelling reaching the grid here spells large-scale death and destruction. The allies need to do everything in their power to get closer to 100 percent effectiveness and not waste time getting there. 

We also need to close the skies to all air traffic and defend Ukraine from more missile and drone attacks by all methods necessary to prevent further suffering. Had we done so in April at the urging of many experts, this war might very well be over. It’s time for a no-fly zone.

Russia has weaponized winter by destroying critical infrastructure under the guise that these facilities are contributing to the war effort.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his government are pleading for more defensive military systems from the U.S. and NATO. It is clear that the time to step up is now — to help Ukraine stop the shelling.

We as a nation and within the world community need to learn from history before it’s too late and “never again” becomes here and now.

Brock Bierman is president and CEO of New York-based Ukraine Friends and a visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He previously served as Assistant Administrator of USAID’s Bureau for Europe and Eurasia.

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