In his office in Kyiv’s city hall, mayor Vitali Klitschko is planning for the worst and hoping for the best.
The previous day, in the middle of the sixth mass Russian missile strike against Ukrainian cities that had sent Kyiv’s resident to the bomb shelters and metro stations, no rockets had made it through to hit the capital.
On the mayor’s desk is a newspaper he has had produced and distributed around the city in recent days. Bearing his name, and the headline “We will overcome and win”, it lists all the emergency services in Kyiv that will be available in case of what should be unthinkable but isn’t: the failure of all power and services to a city of 3 million in the depths of Ukraine’s winter.
Across three densely printed pages are supermarkets with generators that will work in that emergency, the post offices and banks, and arrangements for public transit.
It lists the 45 underground metro stations that will remain open as shelters and provide phone charging and internet, as well as tips for surviving a prolonged blackout.
“It’s for the worst-case scenario,” says Klitschko, a former world champion boxer turned politician, picking up the paper. “We need to tell people what they need to do if the situation becomes critical and they don’t have internet and connection to media.”
Life in the city can often seem largely normal outside of the massive airstrikes that have been taking place, often weekly, since 20 October. Restaurants are busy and the streets are jammed with traffic at close to prewar levels, but with the first snow on the ground and the temperature hitting -8C this week, life in the capital is also overshadowed by the risk of a humanitarian crisis.
“Thanks to our military, they knocked out all the missiles fired at Kyiv yesterday,” says Klitschko. “But it was only two weeks ago we came close to a total blackout. Then the temperature was above freezing but imagine the same situation if it happened now when it is close to -10 outside and with no electricity water, or heating. The consequences would be disastrous.
“In that attack almost the whole city was without electricity. For the next 12 hours we were working night and day to bring back the power,” he adds.
Ukrainians have coined a word of what Russian is attempting, Kholodomor – mass death by freezing – a play on Holodomor, the portmanteau word used to describe Joseph Stalin’s human-made famine in Ukraine that killed millions in the early 1930s.
“We never expected that they would try to destroy the civilian infrastructure of our cities. It is genocidal. It’s terrorism,” says the mayor. “They want to freeze the civilian population. They want to kill us, want to have a Ukraine without Ukrainians.”
For Klitschko, efforts to keep the city going have become a blur. “To be honest, it’s one long, long day. Sometimes I’m confused what day of the week it is. I sleep in a different place every night and I don’t know what the challenge will be tomorrow. But I’m still alive and it’s not everyone who has the privilege to be healthy.”
If the Kremilin’s effort to freeze Ukraine’s population into capitulating is failing, it is not only because of the country’s rapidly improving air defences but also the enormous efforts to repair power plants as soon as they are damaged.
Even now, however, power remains patchy in some parts of Kyiv, with energy conservation measures still in force and many businesses outside of the central parts of the city relying on mobile generators.
And while many residents of Kyiv were cheered that no missiles or so-called kamikaze drones landed on the city – although they struck elsewhere in Ukraine – Klitschko is not ready to believe the aerial threat is gone – even with the arrival of new air defence systems from western allies.
Asked whether those air defences are taking pressure off the city, he says: “Yesterday there were 70 missiles and almost every one was shot down. But just today I was talking to our military partners and I asked them same the question you are asking me.
“There’s no clear answer. We can’t tell if our air defences are in perfect condition right now. I can say the situation is better than two weeks ago and much better than two months ago. But we still need help with more, and more modern air defence weapons, to save lives.’
The interconnectedness of Ukraine’s national grid system and the reliance on pumped hot water produced in central plants for heating most homes means Kyiv is vulnerable to attacks elsewhere in the country.
While much has been made of efforts by Ukraine’s allies to send large mobile generating units to help protect critical civilian infrastructure, Klitschko does not see it as the answer.
“It’s good that we are seeing big generators being sent but it’s still not a panacea for all challenges we are facing. Just a single one of the water pumping stations in Kyiv requires 4 megawatts to operate. On top of that they require huge amounts of fuel. That’s why those generators are at hospitals and schools, and main sites that are really critical that people really need. Because even with the new generating capacity it’s not enough. It won’t bridge the deficit we’re facing.”
For Klitschko, as for other Ukrainian officials, there is only one real answer – the defeat of Russia on the battlefield and the end of the conflict.
“I’m not Nostradamus so I’m not ready to give an answer about the timing of when this war will end but I know that we will win. I’ll tell you why. It’s a rule of war that people will die in battle. But what’s most important is the motivation for fighting.
“There has been no real explanation to Russian soldiers of why they fight. So they are fighting for money. We are ready to die for our family and children. All of us. We are fighting for our children’s future, for democracy and human rights. Because we don’t want to live in a country that is a jail that is built by Putin. It’s why our soldiers would rather die than bend the knee.”