Ukrainian authorities have begun evacuating civilians from recently liberated sections of the Kherson and Mykolaiv regions, fearing that a lack of heat, power and water due to Russian shelling will make conditions too unlivable this winter.
The World Health Organization concurred, warning that millions face a “life-threatening” winter in Ukraine.
Authorities urged residents of the two southern regions, which Russian forces have been shelling for months, to move to safer areas in the central and western parts of the country. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Monday that the government will provide transportation, accommodations and medical care for them, with priority for women with children and the elderly.
Vereshchuk last month asked citizens now living abroad not to return to Ukraine for the winter to conserve power. Other officials have suggested that residents in Kyiv or elsewhere who have the resources to leave Ukraine for a few months should do so, so power can be saved for hospitals and other key facilities.
The WHO delivered a chilling warning Monday about the energy crisis’ human impact on Ukraine.
“This winter will be life-threatening for millions of people in Ukraine,” said the WHO’s regional director for Europe, Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge. “Attacks on health and energy infrastructure mean hundreds of hospitals and healthcare facilities are no longer fully operational, lacking fuel, water and electricity.”
He warned of health risks such as respiratory and cardiovascular problems from people trying to warm themselves by burning charcoal, wood, diesel generators and electric heaters.
The evacuations are taking place more than a week after Ukraine recaptured the city of Kherson, on the western bank of the Dnieper River, and surrounding areas in a major battlefield gain. Since then, heading into the winter, residents and authorities alike are realizing just how much power and other infrastructure the Russians destroyed before retreating or damaged just in the last week.
Ukraine is known for its brutal winter weather, and snow has already covered Kyiv, the capital, and other parts of the country.
Russian forces are fortifying their defense lines along Dnieper River’s eastern bank, fearing that Ukrainian forces will push deeper into the region. In the weeks before Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive, Russian-installed authorities helped tens of thousands of Kherson city residents to evacuate to Russian-held areas.
On Monday, Russian-installed authorities urged other residents to evacuate an area on the river’s eastern bank that Moscow now controls, citing intense fighting in Kherson’s Kakhovskiy district.
Russia has been pounding Ukraine’s power grid and other infrastructure from the air for weeks, causing widespread blackouts and leaving millions of Ukrainians without electricity, heat and water.
To cope, four-hour or longer power outages were scheduled Monday in 15 of Ukraine’s 27 regions, according to Volodymyr Kudrytsky, head of Ukraine’s state grid operator Ukrenergo. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says more than 50% of the country’s energy facilities have been damaged by Russian missile strikes.
Zelenskyy on Monday repeated his calls for NATO nations and other allies to recognize Russia as a terrorist state, saying that its shelling of energy supplies was tantamount “to the use of a weapon of mass destruction.” Zelenskyy also again urged stricter sanctions against Russia and appealed for more air defense aid.
“The terrorist state needs to see that they do not stand a chance,” he told NATO’s 68th Parliamentary Assembly meeting in Madrid in a video address.
Also Monday, Zelenskyy and his wife made a rare joint public appearance to observe a moment of silence and place candles at a Kyiv memorial for those killed in Ukraine’s pro-European Union mass protests in 2014. As bells rang in a memorial tribute, Ukraine’s first couple walked under a gray sky on streets dusted with snow and ice up to a wall of stone plaques bearing the names of fallen protesters.
Their visit coincided with fresh reminders Monday of more death and destruction on Ukrainian soil.
At least four civilians were killed and eight more wounded in Ukraine over the past 24 hours, the deputy head of the country’s presidential office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, said Monday.
A Russian missile strike in the northeast Kharkiv region on Sunday night killed one person and wounded two as it hit a residential building in the village of Shevchenkove, according to the region’s governor.