There’s no gas. The mines have been bombed. Kim Sengupta reports from Grabova on the bleak winter ahead
The fields around Grabova and Debaltseve became the focus of international attention as the crash site of Flight MH17. But along the roads leading to the villages are reminders, on the scarred landscape, of another casualty of Ukraine’s civil war which will have a huge impact in the coming months – the coal mines that have been closed down.
An energy crisis, started when Vladimir Putin cut off the gas from Russia, has been severely exacerbated by the disruption of coal supplies. This country is facing the prospect of the grimmest of winters; the threat of cities starved of fuel for heating and delivery of food while, at the same time, facing artillery and air strikes.
Europe has experienced winter conflicts since the Second World War. But while the population of Sarajevo during the siege in the early 1990s was around 430,000, there are more than one million people living in Donetsk alone, along with 440,000 in Luhansk, and, on the edge of the battlezone, 1.43 million in Kharkiv.
Cities not directly affected by the fighting, such as the capital Kiev and Lviv in the west, will also be in General Winter’s frontline. Numbers of inhabitants have swollen to three million and 800,000, respectively, as internal refuges arrive from the east and Crimea.
The Ukrainian government admits that it does not have enough fuel to heat homes and keep factories running through the winter. And the crisis comes with an economy already in meltdown. It was expected to contract by 7 per cent, but Valeria Gontareva, head of the National Bank of Ukraine, warned at the weekend that the real figure is likely to be 10 per cent. Exports to Russia, a key market, will fall by 35 per cent, she added; meanwhile the currency, the hryvnia, has depreciated by 50 per cent against the dollar in the past nine months.
After Russia cut off gas supplies to Ukraine in a dispute over unpaid bills, Kiev sought to replace the shortfall through “reverse flows”, taking Russian gas from countries such as Poland, Hungary and Slovakia. But Gazprom, Russia’s state gas company, has complained over the practice, denouncing it as “ a semi fraudulent mechanism” and threatened to reduce exports to these states so that none is left to send on to Ukraine.
Speaking at the Yalta international conference, held in Kiev this year after the annexation of Crimea by the Kremlin, Ukraine’s Energy Minister, Yuriy Prodan, accused Russia of “blatantly using gas as a political tool”. To survive the winter, he added, “rather unpopular measures, including administrative ones aimed at reducing energy consumption, will have to be taken”.
The cutting of coal stocks has been a blow. Ukraine is Europe’s second-largest producer: but more than half of its 115 mines have stopped operating and output has plummeted. The Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said : “The mines have been bombed, so there’s no production of thermal coal; without supplies to power plants, there are problems with electricity and heating. It’s obvious the situation in the winter is going to be very difficult.”
Oleg Tsarev, a former presidential candidate who is now a separatist leader wanted by the Kiev government for treason, agrees with Mr Yatsenyuk that what happens in the winter will be of crucial interest. “I expect major upheavals for Ukraine ahead: most importantly, how will it handle the winter, the cold , the economic crisis that is now arriving in Ukraine?”
The regions seeking to break away, Donetsk and Luhansk, will escape this problem, Mr Tsarev and his allies believe. Russia has pipelines into the region and talks over cheap deals have already begun. But nothing can be guaranteed at a time of strife: power stations in Donetsk have been hit a number of times recently by Ukrainian government fire, leading to electricity and water being cut off, and supplies remain vulnerable to sabotage.
At the port of Mariupol, which has been under repeated attacks by rebel forces backed by Russian armour, members of the Azov Battalion, one of a number of oligarch-funded private armies fighting for Kiev, claim they have plans for the pipelines. “In normal times, blowing up a pipeline would be terrorism; but here we are fighting terrorists and if their Russian masters are using gas supplies as a weapon, surely it is justified,” maintained Denys, a former laboratory technician from Kharkiv, who joined the force four months ago. “If they make the rest of the country suffer, then the territory controlled by the terrorists should suffer as well.”
His comrade Grigory, a former teacher from Kiev, was not sure: “It will only make ordinary Ukrainians suffer, the DPR [Donetsk People’s Republic] heads will have their own fuel and generators. It seems to me the only winners out of this winter will be the Russians. They always win in winter, don’t they?”