Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.
LVIV, Ukraine — Inna missed her father’s funeral.
The grieving 36-year-old Ukrainian lawyer learned of his death as she and her two young daughters — one aged seven, the other five — boarded a flight from Heathrow Airport in London to Poland.
It was at the mist-shrouded railway station at Przemyśl, 16 kilometers from the Poland-Ukraine border, that her plan to pay her graveside respects unraveled, as salvoes of Russian missiles slammed into Ukraine’s power grid, also impacting Inna’s hometown of Vinnytsia.
The barrage on the country’s energy infrastructure — the worst it’s experienced since October 10 — not only threw major cities and small villages into darkness and cold, but it’s also wreaked havoc on Ukraine’s railways, grinding trains to a halt and leaving them powerless at stations.
Away from the frontlines of battle, this is what Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine looks like — a slight, dignified blond-haired woman, with two young children in tow, trying to mourn her father and reach her 72-year-old mother to comfort her.
Knowing the journey back home would be arduous, Inna had tried to persuade her daughters to stay in Clapham, south London, where the three have been living with an English family for the past six months. “They have been very kind to us,” she explained.
Inna’s studying business administration now. Her daughters are in school. “Six months ago, they knew no English; it was hard at first for them,” she told me. Now, the kids chatter away in English, with the elder explaining her favorite thing to do at school is drawing; and the younger chiming in to announce she loves swimming.
But that calm, predictable life they’ve been living in England seemed far away right now.
The girls had insisted on accompanying their mother to Ukraine because they wanted to see their grandparents … and their cats. “When is the train coming?” the oldest demanded several times.
And as the night drew in, and the cold settled along the crowded platform at Przemyśl’s train station, other flagging, bundled-up kids started asking the same question, while parents — mainly mothers — tried to work out how to complete their journeys across the border.
As they did so and debated their options, a Polish policewoman insisted that smoking wasn’t allowed on the platform, and volunteers wearing orange or yellow vests offered hot tea, apples and fruit juice. Still, there was no sign of the scheduled train, and no information about it either.
While we waited on the platform, through the windows of a small apartment block across the road, Polish families could be seen glued to their television sets — no doubt absorbing the news that a missile had hit a grain silo in a Polish village just 100 kilometers north of Przemyśl.
As the news added to the disquiet among the Ukrainians at the station, the worry became palpable up and down the platform. Daryna, a dark-haired, middle-aged woman, was heading to see her 21-year-old son. “I’ve been living in Scotland with my daughter,” she said. “But he’s studying in Kyiv, and I want to make sure he’s OK.”
“Going home now is like being transported from the normal to the abnormal,” she added.
Galina, the director of a small clothing company, was impatient to see her 10-year-old daughter, whom she left in the care of her grandmother in Kyiv while making a quick business trip to Poland. She kept texting them to make sure they were safe, but reassuring replies didn’t assuage her, as both she and the others kept scrolling on social media for news about their hometowns — Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Khmelnytskyi, Zhytomyr, Poltava, Rivne and Lviv, all affected by the nationwide missile bombardment.
My destination, Lviv, was badly impacted by the recent blasts. Several explosions were heard from the city on Tuesday, prompting Mayor Andriy Sadovyi to warn on his Telegram channel that everyone should “stay in shelter!” However, many won’t have received that message, as neither the internet nor the cellular networks were working in parts of the city. Officials said missiles and drones caused severe damage to the power grid and energy infrastructure, despite reports of successful missile interceptions too.
Some 95 kilometers from Przemyśl, Lviv was cold and damp when we arrived shortly after dawn on Wednesday. After giving up on the train, we’d crossed the border by foot and cadged a lift to the city.
As we made our way there, the city was largely without power, the traffic lights weren’t working, and the air raid sirens were clamoring. The only lights we could see were from buildings equipped with generators.
At my hotel, the manager, Andriy, told me it takes 37 gallons of diesel an hour to keep the electricity flowing, but he cautioned the water might not be that hot. “When the all-clear sounds, we will serve breakfast for another hour,” he added helpfully.
By the time I finished breakfast, electric trains were already up and running again in Lviv, less than a day after the city’s generation and transmission infrastructure was hit, and by evening, the lights were on all across the city — yet further testament to Ukrainian resilience, improvisation and refusal to be cowed.
And elsewhere, too, electrical engineers — the new heroes of Ukrainian resistance — managed to patch up the damage to get trains running and homes lit. “We had a blackout yesterday [Tuesday],” friends in Ternopil, a two-hour drive east of Lviv, told me by text. “The whole city was without electricity and water for several hours. But eventually everything returned to normal,” they added.
But with winter approaching and Russia planning to seemingly try to wear down Ukrainian resistance not so much on the battlefield but by targeting its civilian energy and water infrastructure, there are questions about how the country can ride out the pummeling.
In July and August, tens of thousands of Ukrainians who fled overseas started returning home. Manned by a colorful variety of NGOs and charities at the border crossings into Poland, the tent camps thus became largely redundant as the refugee flood leaving Ukraine turned to a trickle, and the tents eventually came down. But now they may well be needed again.
“A lot of Ukrainians will leave if there’s no heat and no electricity,” predicted Inna. She’s now in a quandary, torn between planning for a life in England — if she can get her mother a visa — or seeing her future in Ukraine.
“I was a property lawyer in Odesa, I had a good life, and things were going well. But that’s all lost,” she said, trailing off, lost in her thoughts.