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Dispatch from Kherson: Inside Ukraine’s battle to win the infrastructure war

Russia is waging a war on infrastructure. Ukrainian civilians are working 24/7 to repair the damage.

When Ukrainian forces swept through Kherson last month, the news ricocheted across the country and the world. It was Ukraine’s greatest success, the first major city to be retaken from the Russians. Celebrations carried into the night among those still left in the battered provincial capital and spread across the country.

Grid visited Kherson just three days after the liberation. The signs of occupation were still fresh: Half-torn Russian propaganda posters hung on billboards throughout the city, proclaiming the city’s return to “its Russian motherland” and that “Russia is here forever.” In the streets, people waved blue and yellow Ukrainian flags — flags they had kept hidden throughout the occupation — and sang the country’s national anthem. Few seemed fazed by the conditions in the city — Russian troops had damaged local water, power and heating infrastructure on their way out — and they hardly budged at the regular sounds of artillery hitting Kherson from Russian positions just a few kilometers away, on the other side of the river.

But the jubilation in Kherson masked realities about what the Russians had left behind and the damage they are still capable of inflicting from a distance. All that artillery and longer-range missile fire is now aimed almost daily at doing more damage and cutting the supply of water and power. On Wednesday, authorities in Kherson said they had restored electricity to 20 percent of the population; a day later, Russian shells once again knocked out power to the entire city. It is these basic services — and their absence — that may come to define much of the next few months of the war, especially given the challenges of winter.

“Of course, it’s going to be difficult,” Olena, a middle-aged resident of Kherson who spoke on the condition of partial anonymity, told Grid as she filled jugs of water from the Dnieper River. “Look what we have to do just to survive right now. We have no power, water, heating — and it’s only going to get colder.”

Over the past several weeks, Grid visited Kherson and its sister city Mykolaiv and points between. The extent of the destruction was clear; so was the resolve of the local population to repair the damage — and to fight back against Russia’s war on infrastructure.

A war on electricity and water

But the gravest shortages are in the east and south, where the fighting and Russian shelling have been most severe.

On a typical day in Kherson, Russians fire artillery shells from across the Dnieper River, striking residential areas, electrical transformers, power plants and other civilian targets. On Nov. 27, according to British military estimates, there was a new daily high of 54 shelling incidents in Kherson.

Where will they find water?

Across the city, authorities have set up “points of invincibility,” tents with electrical outlets, internet provided by the Starlink satellite network and bottled water.

Grid also visited Kherson’s sister city, Mykolaiv, which sits just north of the Black Sea on Ukraine’s southern coast. Mykolaiv was, for a time, one of Ukraine’s most strategically important cities, located between Kherson and Odessa, the Black Sea port city and a key goal in Russia’s initial advance in the south. To date, Ukrainian forces in Mykolaiv have resisted a heavy, monthslong Russian assault; the city has remained in Ukrainian hands throughout the war.

But Mykolaiv’s infrastructure has been battered, and the situation there may be even more precarious than in Kherson.

“On the 12th of April, we stopped getting water in the city,” Boris Dudenko, CEO of Mykolaiv’s state water company, told Grid. “There are two pipes that bring water from a reservoir in Kherson oblast, 73 kilometers from here. The Russians destroyed them deliberately and left us with nothing.”

That led to the decision to use water from the nearby river.

“It’s unsuitable for drinking, it’s unsuitable for cooking,” Dudenko said. “It’s good for cleaning and a bit of hygiene, but not much else. And the damage the salt causes to the pipes is very serious.”

Dudenko produced two sections of pipe, corroded and brown with rust. “These were taken from one section of the city’s pipelines,” he said. “Even if, by some miracle, we could switch back to clean water tomorrow, the damage has been done.”

As a result, for months Mykolaiv’s citizens have been forced to stand in long queues to gather drinking water.

The cost of repairs to the city’s water system will be several billion hryvnias, Dudenko said, somewhere in the realm of $100 million. In the meantime, he and others work to bring potable water to distribution points across Mykolaiv.

“We have about 100 distribution points of drinking water in the city,” Dudenko said. “But a person still has to come to the station and take it themselves. It’s hard for a young, healthy person to carry enough water up several flights of stairs in an apartment building. For an elderly person, it’s almost impossible.”

As for the water coming from the river, winter will only make things harder.

“Some of the pipes are large in diameter, so the water in them can easily freeze, form big chunks of ice that block the flow and cause ruptures,” he said. “And this can happen again and again. So I expect the winter will be very difficult.”

Staying warm

The water issues, dire as they are, are a problem primarily for Kherson and Mykolaiv and other front-line cities, and less of an issue for the rest of the country. There’s another pressing concern that affects much of Ukraine and is getting more difficult by the day: heating and power.

Mykola Lohvinov, the director of Mykolaiv’s state heating and energy concern, has grown used to long days spent near the front lines. He pointed out a sleeping bag in his office, where he has spent many nights over the last few months. “I have a Kalashnikov [automatic rifle] in the closet, too, but thankfully I haven’t had to use that yet,” he said with a laugh.

Lohvinov’s work has been no less vital than the fighting done by those in the trenches. His company is responsible for 60 percent of the region’s heating, as well as much of the power supply and a half-dozen services ranging from coordinating aid distribution to helping build barricades and other defenses. But his prime task right now is to provide heat and electricity for nearly 700,000 people in the region.

Lohvinov’s repair crews are on-call at all hours of the day. Russian missiles and drones often strike in the dead of night — meaning constant calls and frequent danger for his crew members.

“Myself, the lead engineer and the head power engineer are practically never off duty,” Lohvinov said. “Our repair brigades are in a permanent state of readiness too. As soon as the [Russian] shelling ends, damage control teams come in and start repairing as fast as possible, like ants.”

Lohvinov and others in Mykolaiv told Grid that when it comes to the power supply, the liberation of Kherson is unlikely to bring relief. The weapons most commonly used by the Russians against Mykolaiv these days — Iranian Shahed “kamikaze drones” and S-300 long-range missiles, launched with little precision at ground targets — have more than enough range to do damage without the presence of Russian forces nearby.

“I don’t think it will make a difference,” Lohvinov said. “Kherson [city] is 60 kilometers from here — S-300 rockets fly 200 kilometers. The drones these a--holes get from Iran, over a thousand [kilometers]. What we need are modern air defense systems and a lot of them. That’s the only way to keep our cities safe.”

If the rain has helped with water collection, Mykolaiv’s climate provides some relief when it comes to staying warm: its proximity to the sea keeps temperatures a bit milder and the winters relatively short.

Lohvinov is also grateful for a World Bank program introduced several years ago that has helped Ukrainian energy entities adapt from old Soviet components to others that are more compatible with European and other foreign parts. That adaptation — and donations of equipment from the West — will help Lohvinov and his crews keep systems running.

But with an estimated 230,000 people in Mykolaiv (half its prewar population), much more will be needed if the Russian attacks continue.

“What we need are generators,” Lohvinov said. “Hundreds of them just for our enterprise alone, not even counting the other institutions of Mykolaiv city and its administration. Electricity is the most difficult thing for us right now.”

A different solution: get civilians out

Some Ukrainians in the area are skeptical.

“We can discuss this, but here is the question — where will they go?” Lohvinov asked. “Imagine, there are 230,000 people here in Mykolaiv right now. In Kyiv, there are more than a million. In Ukraine as a whole, there are 40 million people. Where can we send such a number? We need to be realistic and focus on providing a normal life for people who are here.”

Providing anything approaching a normal life is an almost impossible task in Ukraine these days, especially in the areas that are both near the front lines and suffering the scars of all those Russian attacks. Basic transportation can be grueling and dangerous. Many bridges across southern Ukraine have been destroyed — blown up by retreating Ukrainian troops in the spring or by Russians doing the same this fall, forcing detours across secondary roads that are often laden with mines or unexploded ordnance, assuming they’re navigable at all.

All of which would make large-scale evacuations dangerous — and difficult. Many main roads in the east and south have been damaged repeatedly by the Russian assaults. Denis Barashkovsky, a foreman with the municipal road service ELU Avtodorih in Mykolaiv, is among those who deals with the aftermath.

“Our work makes sure that people can travel around normally,” Barashkovsky told Grid. “After Kharkiv, Mykolaiv is the most-bombed city in Ukraine by number of impacts. In October, there were more air raid sirens here than anywhere else,” he said. “It’s not a great statistic.”

Damage assessments — and the way forward

The southeastern areas of Mykolaiv have been hit hardest.

“From the first day [of the war], we were engaged in the defense of the city,” Barashkovsky said. “Building fortifications, checkpoints, anything that could help our soldiers. Everything was about giving the maximum support possible to the army. And it worked. [The Russians] surrounded Mykolaiv from three sides — we had only the bridge over the Southern Bug River, towards Odessa, as our lifeline. But the enemy never broke into the city.”

That didn’t stop the Russians from damaging Mykolaiv from a distance. Barashkovsky pointed out examples of the destruction on a kind of damage-assessment drive around the city. Buildings have been gashed open, and in many cases upper floors have caved in as the result of missile impacts. Piles of smashed concrete and broken glass mark the spots where Barashkovsky’s and other crews have gathered debris and cleared it as best as they can.

“We clean it up,” he said. “Our headquarters decides which sites are most urgent, and we head out to remove debris as the first responders, along with ambulances and emergency services. It’s gotten better since April — once [the Ukrainian army] pushed the Russians back from the city, they couldn’t bomb us as much.”

School after school shows signs of having been hit by Russian rockets. On one, every window has been blown out; another has three massive holes in the roof.

“The Russians just love to bomb universities,” Barashkovsky said. “We have three in this city, and every one of them was hit. Apparently, the Russians are very afraid that we will become educated.”

The most recent damage was done by a cruise missile strike on a 19th-century building in the city center.

“This is the main high school in the city, the oldest building in the entire town,” said Barashkovsky, pointing out where shrapnel struck the site. “It’s from 1898, Russian Empire times. That says it all about their ‘Russian world,’” he said, using the phrase used often by Russian President Vladimir Putin to describe his country’s aspirational sphere of influence. In other words, in Putin’s war to restore what he sees as Russia’s rightful place in the world, his forces are destroying symbols of the old Russian empire.

In both Mykolaiv and Kherson, the days are getting colder and darker, and the Russian strikes more devastating. But here, and all across Ukraine, there’s another constant: The challenges appear to only increase the people’s resolve, and their fury with the enemy.

Lohvinov, the heating director, probably speaks for many Ukrainians.

“[The Russians] are just trying to harm as many people as possible,” he said. “Just bombing everything they can. If we look at the history of Russia … they can’t do it in a different way. And no one here wants them or needs them.”

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