‘We are Ukrainians. We are strong’: morality key in Kiev as winter sets | Ukraine

TThe residents of Kiev who took refuge in their local “invincibility station” were well aware that their own morale has become the central battlefield of the war, and that it is not an area they are willing to give in to Vladimir Putin.

The insulated gray tent set up on a street corner in Kiev’s Pecherskyi district, one of thousands set up across the country this week, offered electricity, heat, tea and sandwiches after the latest Russian attack.

“It’s like on February 24, when the invasion started, and early March, when people really came together,” said Maryna Honcharova, who was wrapped in a winter coat in the middle of the tent. If this was Putin’s grand plan to crush the will of the people, she added, it would have backfired.

“It only intensifies the anger against Russia. We only curse and hate Russia more.”

A murmur of agreement came from the tent. Those who were previously chatting in Russian switched to Ukrainian to get the point across.

A person outside an 'invincibility center'
An “invincibility center” in Dnipro, one of thousands set up across Ukraine this week. Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

A salvo of cruise missiles on Wednesday had knocked out the national power grid, and with it the water supply for much of the country. On satellite images, Ukraine stood out as a pitch-black island. Kiev was completely dark on Wednesday evening, except for some public facilities and companies with generators.

At dawn on Thursday, 70% of the capital was still without power. The temperature outside fluctuated just above zero and an icy rain fell, melting the snow of the past few days and filling the streets with dark slush. There was water everywhere, but little to drink. There was no power for the water pumping stations.

Oksana Yakovleva, a dentist, and her actor husband, Yurii, had prepared for such an eventuality by filling every container they had with water. They would have filled the bathtub if they hadn’t been afraid of their three cats falling in. Meanwhile, life went on. Yurii’s theater was still playing plays.

“Nobody cancels. They come for the positive energy,” he said. Oksana pointed out that her 87-year-old mother had returned to work unbowed and taught at a music school.

“She remembers the liberation on May 9, 1945,” Yakovleva said.

Russia has used World War II iconography to maintain Russian public support for the invasion. Ukrainians are quick to point out that the ultimately victorious struggle is also their legacy, and they draw lessons in resilience from it.

“We are Ukrainians. We are strong and we can get through this,” said Angelina Anatolieva, a 50-year-old resident of Pecherskyi. “Do you remember the siege of Leningrad? They have been through that and we can experience this. We can endure anything.”

The repeated attacks, which President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has called a crime against humanity, are having a cumulative impact on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. Farid Safarov, the deputy energy minister, said there had been a total blackout after the rocket attacks on Wednesday afternoon.

“We didn’t have a synchronized single energy system. It was split into parts, so I can say it was 100% out of order,” Safarov said.

Nevertheless, the national power grid had been reassembled by 4 p.m. Thursday as a result of intensive efforts by utilities rushing to repair power plants, power lines and transformers. They did this under the constant threat of Russia’s “double tap” tactics, in which a second strike targets damaged sites with the aim of killing humanitarian and repair workers.

“We have some facilities that have been hit at least eight times. The energy front is the second front of the war,” Safarov said, describing the engineers who risked their lives during the repairs as “energy soldiers protecting the country.”

Properly rebuilding Ukraine’s energy infrastructure would require a lot of imported technology and external financing, but that will be futile, Safarov said, without adequate missile defenses.

A child in an invincibility shelter in Bucha
The shelters provide tea and sandwiches, as well as electricity during power outages. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

“Let’s imagine we received all the equipment we need in one day and it took us a day to install that equipment, but then there’s another missile strike,” he said. The priority was to “create a shield in the sky to protect our energy infrastructure facilities”.

In the middle of the Pecherskyi invincibility station was a small table covered with a spaghetti-like pile of cables where locals were charging their phones and batteries. On one side was a counter with water and snacks.

The entire building was a hundred square feet at the most, and was almost full even by early afternoon, when power and water had been restored to most of the neighborhood. In what is likely to be a long and bitter winter, with the power grid under relentless Russian fire, Pecherskyi will need a much larger tent, or much more.

Oleksandr Harchenko, a 32-year-old receptionist at the M15 hairdressers, across the street from the invincibility station, pointed out that the local response to the Russian attacks was not entirely one of stubborn determination.

“I went to get water from the local well and there were some people who panicked a bit,” said Harchenko. “We were without water and electricity for 24 hours, and they fixed it pretty quickly. It could be much worse.”

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