Ukrainians urged to get out of hard-hit areas, stock up on winter supplies
Winter will be life-threatening for millions in Ukraine as Russia destroys energy infrastructure, WHO says
Ukraine could face rolling blackouts across the country through March, an energy expert said, due to what another official described Tuesday as the "colossal" damage done to Ukraine's power grid by relentless Russian airstrikes. Ukrainians are being told to stock up on supplies and evacuate hard-hit areas.
"Although there are fewer blackouts now, I want everyone to understand: Most likely, Ukrainians will have to live with blackouts until at least the end of March," said Sergey Kovalenko, CEO of private energy provider DTEK Yasno.
"I think we need to be prepared for different options, even the worst ones. Stock up on warm clothes, blankets, think about what will help you wait out a long shutdown," he said, addressing Ukrainian residents.
Russia has been pummelling Ukraine's power grid and other infrastructure from the air for weeks, as the war approaches its nine-month milestone. That onslaught has caused widespread blackouts and deprived millions of Ukrainians of electricity, heat and water.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Tuesday in a video speech to a French municipal group that Russian missile strikes have destroyed nearly half of the country's energy facilities "to turn the cold of winter into a weapon of mass destruction."
Later, in his nightly video address, he announced the establishment of "Points of Invincibility" where people can gather for electricity, mobile communications, internet access, heat, water and first aid.
Snow already falling
Temperatures commonly stay below freezing in Ukraine in the winter, dropping to –20 C or even lower in some regions, and snow has already fallen in many areas, including Kyiv. Ukrainian authorities are evacuating civilians from recently liberated sections of the southern Kherson and Mykolaiv regions out of fear the winter will be too hard to survive.
"This winter will be life-threatening for millions of people in Ukraine," said Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, the World Health Organization's regional director for Europe, due to the lack of power and Ukraine's damaged health facilities.
Ukrainian authorities have started evacuating civilians from recently liberated sections of the southern Kherson and Mykolaiv regions out of fear that the winter will be too hard to survive.
In a Telegram message for Kherson residents — especially the elderly, women with children and those who are ill or disabled — Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk posted a number of ways residents can express interest in leaving.
"You can be evacuated for the winter period to safer regions of the country," she wrote.
Heeding the call, women and children — including a little red-headed boy whose shirt read in English "Made with Love" —- carried their limited belongings, along with dogs and cats, onto trains departing from the newly liberated city of Kherson.
"We are leaving now because it's scary to sleep at night," departing resident Tetyana Stadnik said on a cramped night sleeper train Monday as a dog wandered around. "Shells are flying over our heads and exploding. It's too much. We will wait until the situation gets better. And then we will come back home."
Another resident said leaving was the right thing to do to help the country.
"No one wants to leave their homes. But they're even advising [to leave]. They'd have to warm us up, when it's needed for other people. If we have an opportunity to leave, we can at least help Ukraine with something," Alexandra Barzenkova said as she sat on a train bunk bed.
Battle for terrain grinds on
The battle for terrain has continued unabated despite the deteriorating weather conditions, with Ukrainian forces pressing against Russian positions as part of a weeks-long counteroffensive and Moscow's forces keeping up shelling and missile strikes.
In a key battlefield development, a Ukrainian official acknowledged that Kyiv's forces are attacking Russian positions on the Kinburn Spit, which is a gateway to the Black Sea basin and parts of the southern Kherson region that are still under Russian control.
Capturing the Kinburn Spit could help Ukrainian forces push into territory Russia still holds in the Kherson region "under significantly less Russian artillery fire" than directly crossing the Dnipro, a Washington-based think-tank said.
The Institute for the Study of War added that control of the area would help Kyiv alleviate Russian strikes on Ukraine's southern seaports and allow Ukraine to increase its naval activity in the Black Sea.
In the eastern Donetsk region, fierce battles continued around the city of Bakhmut, where the Kremlin's forces are keen to clinch a victory after weeks of embarrassing military setbacks.
Raid on monastery
Meanwhile, Ukraine's counter-intelligence service, police officers and the country's National Guard on Tuesday searched one of the most famous Orthodox Christian sites in the capital, Kyiv, after a priest spoke favourably about Russia —Ukraine's invader — during a service.
The sprawling Kyiv Pechersk Lavra complex — or Monastery of the Caves — is a Ukrainian cultural treasure and the headquarters of the Russian-backed wing of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that falls under the Moscow Patriarchate.
Overlooking the right bank of the Dnipro River, it has been a pilgrimage site for centuries.
The search, motivated by apparent security service suspicions of possible Russian covert operations at the complex, highlighted deep splits in the Orthodox church in Ukraine that have been sharpened by the nine-month Russian invasion.
Hundreds of Ukrainian Orthodox communities have cut their ties with the Moscow-governed branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that was long one of the main sources of Russian influence and power in Ukraine. They transitioned to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
But others remain loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate. The Pechersk Lavra monastic complex is part of that church. An Associated Press journalist saw dozens of officers conducting checks Tuesday both inside and outside the site, which remained open to visitors who showed their IDs.
Russia's Orthodox Church condemned the raid as an "act of intimidation."
Russia slashes spending on health care, schools, roads
Domestically, Russia plans to spend nearly one-third of next year's budget on defence and domestic security while slashing funding for schools, hospitals and roads as it diverts cash to support its military campaign in Ukraine.
A Reuters budget analysis shows Moscow will spend a combined $207 billion Cdn on defence and security, squeezing out other priorities in a critical year leading up to a likely re-election bid by President Vladimir Putin in 2024.
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The combined military and security outlay is a record for the Kremlin but amounts to only about 18 per cent of what the United States plans to spend in the next fiscal year on defence and some, but not all, national security needs.
The 2023 budget will see spending on the "national economy" — including roads, agriculture and research and development — fall by 23 per cent. Health care is to get nine per cent less, while education spending will be cut by two per cent.
While his country cuts back on funding for its people, Russian President Vladimir Putin will in the coming days meet the mothers of reservists called up to fight in Ukraine, the Kremlin said on Tuesday.
Russia celebrates Mother's Day on Nov. 27.
A Kremlin spokesperson said Putin will receive "first-hand information about the real state of affairs."
With files from Reuters