Newsletter from Lviv
Putin's terror bombing won't cause Ukrainians to fold. But it still caused damage.
Earlier this month, I traveled to the Lviv Book Forum, an excellent event that brought together Ukrainian and international writers. On Monday morning, October 10, I was getting ready in my hotel room when the power cut out. Initially, I thought it might go back on in a few minutes. After it didn't, I checked my phone and there was an alert to seek shelter immediately. I went downstairs to the basement which was serving as an air raid shelter, where I spent the next three hours, anxiously waiting for more attacks beyond the one that had hit nearby energy infrastructure. They didn't come.
The power remained off the rest of the day. Another strike hit energy infrastructure the next day and caused more power outages. These were the first attacks that the Western Ukrainian city -- where war had seemed almost as distant as it is in any other European city -- had seen in months.
This move appears to be in line with the philosophy of Putin's new military commander, General Sergei Surovikin, nicknamed General Armageddon, who masterminded civilian bombings in Syria to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The attacks seemed to be an effort to demonstrate strength amid battlefield losses and the humiliating bombing of the bridge between Russia and Crimea. (U.S. officials have said that the strikes were planned beforehand.) There are questions over how sustainable this strategy is: U.K. intelligence has cast doubts that Russia can continue lobbing long-range missiles as their stocks are being depleted.
The strikes failed in their intent to terrorize Ukrainians into submission. After the attack, Lviv was resilient. Several cafes opened without power, taking cash and using cell phone calculators and pencil and paper to take orders. Buses ran, full of people going to work or running errands. People played cards, chess, and even started a drum circle outside on what turned out to be a beautiful fall day. As night fell, the city was pitch black with few lights. A colleague posted on Facebook that it was interesting and comforting to see people come outside into the dark night. On October 11, the lights went out as the Luhansk Philharmonic Orchestra was about to play at the Lviv Organ Hall. The concert went on as scheduled, with the musicians using their phone lights to read music.
While the terror bombing did not work and the civilian casualties were tragic but relatively small in number, Putin's strategy could continue to cause significant damage to Ukraine's energy infrastructure. Ukraine's Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko told CNN that around 30 percent of the country's energy infrastructure had been hit by Russian missiles last week. While crews got to work immediately after the attacks to try to restore power, no country can withstand attacks on this scale to its energy infrastructure over the long term. Olena Zerkal, former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine for European Integration, said at an Atlantic Council event on October 12 that Ukraine lost about 25 power transformers in the attack, and urgently needs international help to buy state-of-the-art equipment to supplant its Soviet-era system. Ukraine, like the rest of Europe, may need more natural gas early next year to get through the winter. Still, the problem is more of transmission than of generation.
As President Volodymyr Zelensky said in June, the winter will be the most difficult one in Ukraine since independence in 1991. On trains, public service announcements ask Ukrainians to wear warmer clothes and cuddle with their pets rather than to crank up the heat. Lviv officials have advised residents to stock up on firewood and have bought 600 potbelly stoves to prepare for the winter ahead. Lviv, and other parts of Western Ukraine, could see another wave of internally displaced persons if fighting in the South and East intensifies.
Ukraine needs a lot of help to avoid a collapse in its economy. Ukraine's government expects GDP to have fallen by 35 to 40 percent by the end of the year. Inflation is running at around 25 percent. According to the IMF, the government needs between at least $3 billion and $4 billion a month in external aid to avoid its government collapsing. Zelensky has said that his government needs $55 billion; and the IMF says Ukraine's international partners have pledged $35 billion. Indeed, Ukraine's military has shown some incredible successes and its people are resilient. But there are still a lot of economic and humanitarian challenges ahead.
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