war in ukraine
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Over the grinding wail of a chainsaw pruning trees, Oleh Braharnyk recalls how his crew sprang into action in Kyiv a week earlier to repair power lines downed by Russian missiles and keep electricity flowing.

Braharnyk, an electric company foreman, knows the stakes: Like many others in Ukraine, his family has dealt with daily power outages caused by Russian airstrikes.

“We, too, sit in the dark,” said Braharnyk, whose home gets power for only about half of each day.

In recent months, Russia has rained missiles on Ukraine to try to take out power grid equipment and facilities that keep lights on, space heaters warm and computers running.

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It’s part of Moscow’s strategy to cripple the country’s infrastructure and freeze Ukraine into submission this winter.

Braharnyk’s crew is one of many from energy company DTEK that moves swiftly in Kyiv — occasionally under artillery and rocket fire — to keep the city ticking. Colleagues across Ukraine do the same.

A new war front

From Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on down, leaders have warned that gas systems, watermains and power stations have become a new front in the war.

About half of Ukraine’s energy supply network is still damaged following widespread attacks on Nov. 23, when DTEK declared that “the power system failed.”

During that barrage, six of the company’s thermal power plants were shut down, and as many as 70 per cent of residents in Ukraine’s capital lost power.

The plants were brought back online within 24 hours, although power cuts affect about 30 per cent of Kyiv’s residents during the day, dropping as low as 20 per cent at night, a DTEK spokesperson said.

DTEK says Russian forces have attacked its facilities 17 times since early October, including twice on Monday alone.

Deaths on battlefields, at work

The company has reported the deaths of more than 106 employees since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, the vast majority of them members of the military. Fourteen were killed while either off-duty or working.

Three Ukrainian energy workers were killed and 24 injured in the past week, DTEK said.

Oleh Braharnyk, a foreman at the electrical company DTEK, says that at the start of the war, Russian forces were launching their attacks on Kyiv from a closer distance. (Andrew Kravchenko/The Associated Press)

Braharnyk’s crew had little more to worry about than freezing temperatures and piles of snow as they trimmed branches on Thursday near overhead electricity lines that power homes and businesses on much of the left bank of the Dnipro River.

That doesn’t diminish their constant state of alert. When the missiles started dropping mid-afternoon on Nov. 23, the crew rushed to an unspecified emergency site, assessed the damage and quickly determined what repairs needed to be done. A second “brigade” was then called in to do the actual repair work.

The crews can’t just rush in. In theory, but not always in practice, de-mining experts are expected to arrive first and give the all-clear.

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Clean-up crews, when needed, clear away debris and fragments from downed lines and blast destruction so trucks and heavy equipment can get through to complete the repairs.

The infrastructure-targeted strikes aren’t as perilous as the attacks carried out in the opening phase of the war, when Russian forces advanced to the outskirts of Kyiv and nearby neighbourhoods before being pushed back. At that time, repair work was done under fire.

“These days, it’s better because the rockets are being fired from farther away,” Braharnyk said.

Risks remain real

In light of the new Russian strategy, “when we hear that there is an incoming strike from Russia, we already know they’re going to aim at the power supplies or power lines,” Braharnyk said.

DTEK’s crews now stay close to their operational base, ready to deploy on a moment’s notice. The risks remain real.

“Even now, we’re not really confident because no one knows if they will do a double hit when we deploy to repair a site that they’ve just struck,” he said.

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The psychological strain is heavy.

“The hardest thing is … hearing the explosions and the strikes, and we don’t know what it is exactly. It could be incoming missiles or SWAT teams de-mining fields so other brigades can get through,” Braharnyk said.

For the electric company crews, it’s about getting the job done, “no matter what’s happening around us,” he said.