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Evacuate or freeze? Kyiv braces for worst case of a winter without power

"Our enemies are doing everything for the city to be without heat, without electricity, without water supply, in general, so we all die," Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said.
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Millions are already without power in Ukraine’s capital, and with further Russian attacks on energy infrastructure feared, Kyiv is bracing for the prospect of a winter without electricity, gas and water.

That has left officials and residents to confront a scenario in which civilians may be forced to consider leaving their homes to flee the freezing cold. 

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko appealed to the city’s 3 million residents to be prepared for a worst-case scenario, including making arrangements that would allow them to relocate and stay with friends or relatives elsewhere if it comes to it.

“We are doing everything to avoid this. But let’s be frank, our enemies are doing everything for the city to be without heat, without electricity, without water supply, in general, so we all die," he told state media during a telethon Sunday. "The future of the country and the future of each of us depends on how prepared we are for different situations," he added.

Image: Key Infrastructure Attacked, Leaving Kyiv With Further Power And Water Outages
Apartment blocks in near-total darkness during a scheduled power cut in Kyiv on Sunday.Ed Ram / Getty Images

During winter, Kyiv sees temperatures plunge below the freezing point, making the potential for power outages in the coming months particularly alarming.

Some residents have heeded the official calls to consider leaving.

Vita Spivakovska, who has a 6-month-old daughter, is facing power cuts each day that last up to 15 hours. “Sometimes just all day without light,” the 30-year-old told NBC News via Telegram.

“If it’s -20 (-4 F°) outside, I will probably have to go somewhere with my little one,” she said, adding that she was “sick of everything.”

Another Kyiv resident, art instructor Rostyslav Zavhorodnii, said he had stocked up on kerosene and battery-powered lanterns.

The 26-year-old lives in a one-bedroom apartment with this 10-year-old cocker spaniel, Willy. He said he was planning to move in with his mother in Lviv — but only if electricity was cut off for too long.

"Where exactly to go? Evacuate to where there will be light? I hesitate to answer. Maybe I’ll move for a while," he said, "I have somewhere to go."

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces have launched sustained attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure in recent weeks, with a barrage of missile strikes and drone attacks that have damaged the grid, forcing power shortages and rolling blackouts.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly address Sunday that more than 4.5 million consumers were without electricity, mostly around Kyiv, and warned that Moscow’s military was preparing new “mass attacks on our infrastructure.”

The Ukrainian energy company Ukrenergo announced it was limiting electricity in Kyiv and a number of other regions, including Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Sumy, by 30%. Blackouts were planned throughout the day Monday.

Freezing is not the only problem that would face Kyiv’s residents if this scenario was repeated in the thick of winter.

People eating lunch by candlelight because of a power cut at a bar in Kyiv on Oct. 24. Sergei Supinsky / AFP - Getty Images

“What you would see is a fairly quick deterioration in the quality of life,” said Frank Ledwidge, a senior lecturer of law and strategy at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom. While critical heating systems are threatened, he said, other elements such as sewage and water supply could quickly succumb without effective pumping systems.

But it could be a logistical nightmare, he said. “Where will they go?”

Authorities have been clear to stress the city has no plans to evacuate right away.

“The civil protection system must be ready for various options, but this does not mean that we are now preparing to conduct an evacuation,” Roman Tkachuk, Kyiv’s director of security, said Sunday in a statement, while the capital plans to create 100 heating points for each district.

“These points are equipped with everything necessary: heat, lighting, bathrooms, dining rooms, places to rest, banks of warm clothes and warm blankets,” he added. 

But Ledwidge cautioned that this is “not something you can sustain.”

He added that officials’ recent public remarks about a potential evacuation may help relieve some pressure.

“If you can go then leave now, which will reduce the pressure on the grid and also reduce the possibility of … people freezing to death on the roads,” due to long lines in an emergency, he said.