Under Missile Strikes, Ukrainians Haul Water, While Surgeons Work in the Dark

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KYIV, Ukraine – The surgeons had made the long incision in the center of the child’s chest, cutting the sternum to spread the ribcage and reach the heart in the operating room in Kiev. Then the lights went out.

Generators kicked in to keep life support equipment running on Wednesday night, and nurses and surgical assistants held flashlights over the operating table to guide the surgeons as they cut and cut as they attempted to save the child’s life in near-total darkness.

“So far we are managing on our own,” says Borys Todurov, the director of the clinic, the Heart Institute. “But every hour gets harder. There has been no water for several hours. We will continue to perform only emergency operations.”

In its increasingly destructive campaign to mistreat the citizens of Ukraine by cutting off their power and running water, Russia this week hit the people of Ukraine with a wave of rocket attacks that was one of the most disruptive in weeks. Ukrainian engineers and rescue crews worked desperately on Thursday to restore services despite snow, sleet and blackout. And people all over the country coped with the hardship.

While surgeons wore headlamps to work in the dark, miners were pulled from the deep underground with manual winches. Residents of high-rise apartments lug buckets and bottles of water up the steps of buildings where elevators stopped and where shops and restaurants turned on generators or lit candles to keep things going.

Though Ukrainians resisted Russia’s attempts to weaken their resolve in the worsening cold, millions were left without power Thursday night as Russia’s continued rocket attacks took an increasing toll. At least 10 people were killed on Wednesday, according to Ukrainian authorities. After each missile strike, repairs have become more challenging, blackouts have lasted longer, and danger to the public has increased.

“The situation is difficult across the country,” acknowledged Herman Galushchenko, Ukraine’s energy minister. By 4 a.m., he said, engineers had managed to “unify the power system,” directing power to critical infrastructure facilities.

Wednesday’s barrage, which injured dozens of people, turned out to be one of the most disruptive attacks in weeks. Since the October 8 explosion on the Kerch Strait bridge connecting the occupied Crimean peninsula to Russia, the Russian military has fired about 600 rockets at power plants, hydroelectric power plants, water pumping stations and treatment plants, and high-voltage power lines around nuclear power plants and critical substations. powering tens of millions of homes and businesses, according to Ukrainian officials.

Wednesday’s strikes took all of Ukraine’s nuclear plants offline for the first time, depriving the country of one of its most vital energy sources. But the energy minister said authorities expected the plants to be up and running again soon “so that the shortfall will ease”.

The Kremlin denied on Thursday that its attacks targeted civilians. A spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said: “We are talking about infrastructure targets that have a direct or indirect relationship with Ukraine’s military potential,” said the Russian news agencies.

He added that Ukraine’s leadership “has every chance to return the situation to normal, has every chance to resolve the situation in a way that meets the demands of the Russian side and, accordingly, every chance to end the suffering of the peaceful population.”

The President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, has currently rejected any suggestion of a ceasefire or peace talks.

In mid-October, President Vladimir V. Putin said attacks on nearly a dozen Ukrainian cities came in retaliation for the truck bombings of the Kerch Bridge, and that the Russian military has been increasingly targeting civilian infrastructure since then.

But the hail of missile strikes also reflects Russia’s ongoing struggle on the battlefield, as ground forces withdrew from thousands of square miles in northeastern Ukraine in September and then from a major southern city in November. In an effort to fortify its lines on the ground — including with poorly trained, recently mobilized conscripts — the Russian military has resorted to long-range missile strikes as a means of deflecting domestic criticism and inflicting pain while on the defensive.

Ukraine has used its Western-supplied weapons against the attacks while pleading for more aid. General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, the top commander of the Ukrainian armed forces, said Ukrainian air defenses shot down 51 of 67 Russian cruise missiles fired on Wednesday and five of 10 drones.

Speaking Wednesday evening at an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council, President Volodymyr Zelensky denounced what he called a Russian terror campaign.

“If the temperature outside drops below zero and tens of millions of people are left without electricity, heat and water as a result of Russian missiles hitting energy facilities,” he said, “it is an obvious crime against humanity.”

It remained unclear on Thursday whether his new call would move European Union diplomats closer to a final deal to help limit Russia’s oil revenues, an effort encouraged by the Biden administration to starve Russia of money for the war.

Officials from all 27 EU member states met late Wednesday evening without agreeing on a top price that traders, shippers and other companies in the supply chain could pay for Russian oil sold outside the bloc. The policy must be in place before an EU embargo on Russian oil imports takes effect on December 5.

The embargo only applies to the block of 27 countries. So to further limit Russia’s financial gains, the group wants to put a cap on the amount buyers outside the region pay for Russian oil. That crude oil could only be sold outside Europe and would have to be below the agreed price. Russia has repeatedly said it will ignore policies, which analysts said would be difficult to enforce.

The EU ambassadors have been asked to set a price of $65 to $70 per barrel and be flexible in enforcing the limit.

The measure of the price of Russian oil, known as the Ural blend, has traded between $60 and $100 a barrel for the past three years. Over the past three months, the price has ranged from $65 to $75 a barrel, suggesting that EU policy would offer little immediate help in alleviating a global cost-of-living crisis.

While EU residents have been preparing for a winter of high energy prices and potential rationing of supplies, Ukrainians have increasingly faced long power outages and water shortages due to the direct damage of the war.

In Kiev, about one in four homes still had no electricity as of Thursday afternoon, and more than half of the city’s residents had no running water, city officials said. Service was being gradually restored, city officials said, adding that they were confident the pumps that supply water to about three million residents would be restored by the end of the day.

But the blackout created potentially dangerous conditions across the country. The scene in the hospital in Kiev echoed that in medical facilities in Ukraine, a vivid illustration of the cascading toll Russia’s attacks are taking on civilians far from the front lines.

Two kidney transplants were performed at the Cherkasy Regional Cancer Center in central Ukraine when the lights went out, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, the deputy head of the Ukrainian president’s office, said on the Telegram messaging app. The generators were on and the transplants were successful, he said.

Christopher Stokes, the head of Doctors Without Borders in Ukraine, said the attacks on infrastructure “put millions of civilians at risk”. They can feed a vicious circle in which people living without heating and clean water are more likely to receive medical care, but that care itself is more difficult to provide.

“Power cuts and water cuts will also affect people’s access to health care as hospitals and health centers find it difficult to function,” he said.

Marc Santora reported from Kiev, Ukraine, and Thomas Gibbons Neff and Natalia Yermak from Dnipro, Ukraine. Report contributed by Matina Stevis Gridneff from Brussels, Jim Tankersley and Alan Reportport from Washington and Alan Yuhas From New York.