Fully 61,000 square miles could be littered with land mines and other explosives left by retreating Russian forces, while half the electric grid has been destroyed.
KYIV — Ukrainian efforts to stabilize some of the country’s battered electricity supply and make a dent in the seemingly endless task of demining swaths of the country offered a glimpse into the Herculean task that lies ahead off the battlefield.
For the first time since Moscow this past week carried out its largest assault on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, the national energy utility said on Saturday that it was again able to use planned, coordinated blackouts to keep the national grid stabilized rather than resorting to emergency power shutdowns.
The first traces of power were also restored to the recently reclaimed southern city of Kherson, which was left without heat, running water and electricity by Russian troops, as they blew up and tore down critical infrastructure before retreating to territory east of the Dnipro River.
“We know that it is very difficult for people, because the occupiers destroyed everything before fleeing,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said in his overnight address to the nation late Friday. “But we will connect everything, restore everything.”
Kherson’s reconnection to a Ukraine free of Russian occupying forces also marked a symbolic milestone Saturday morning as the first train from the capital, Kyiv, since before Russia’s invasion, pulled into the vital southern city’s station a week after Ukrainian troops wrested control back from the Russian occupiers.
Train 102 carried 200 passengers and was planned to be the start of regular service between the cities, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, a senior official in the president’s office, wrote in a Telegram post.
Videos posted on social media by Ukrainian officials showed the train departing Kyiv Friday evening to cheers and applause from people on the platform as triumphant rock music blasted over the loudspeakers.
“This is our victory train!” Mr. Tymoshenko wrote. “Like this train, we will return to Kherson everything for a normal life!”
Mr. Zelensky received Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Kyiv Saturday, the British leader’s first visit since he took office last month. As Mr. Sunak arrived in Ukraine Saturday on the unannounced visit, the British government said it would add 50 million pounds, around $60 million, worth of defensive equipment, including 125 antiaircraft weapons and anti-drone technology to counter Iranian drones deployed by the Russians.
The State of the War
- Explosion in Poland: A Ukrainian air-defense missile — not a Russian weapon — most likely caused a deadly explosion in a Polish village, a top NATO official and Poland’s president said, easing fears that the military alliance would become more deeply embroiled in the war.
- Retaking Kherson: On Nov. 11, Ukrainian soldiers swept into the southern city of Kherson, seizing a major prize from the retreating Russian army and dealing a bitter blow to President Vladimir V. Putin. Days after the liberation, evidence and accounts of torture are emerging.
- Infrastructure Attacks: In a relentless and intensifying barrage of missiles, Moscow is destroying Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, depriving millions of heat, light and clean water. For Ukraine, keeping the lights on as winter looms has become one of its biggest battles.
- Beta Testing New Weapons: Ukraine has become a testing ground for state-of-the-art weapons and information systems that Western officials predict could shape warfare for generations to come.
Every place Russian forces have retreated during the war, they have left behind a trail of destruction and war crimes. It was true in the areas around Kyiv and across the northeastern Kharkiv region, and is now the case in Kherson.
Across fields strewn with mines and at power plants under the threat of Russian missiles, workers with the Ukrainian utility company, Ukrenergo, have raced to fix damage caused by attacks intended to heap suffering on the Ukrainian people. But repairs made this week can be destroyed by a new Russian assault the next.
Ukraine’s government says that nearly half of Ukraine’s energy grid has been knocked out by recent Russian missile strikes. Kyiv also estimates that nearly 61,000 square miles of the country could be littered with land mines and other explosives. Some cities and towns lie in ruins.
Oleksandr Kharchenko, the director of the Energy Industry Research Center in Ukraine, said that utility workers and engineers were facing a novel crisis.
“No one in the world has thrown a system the size of the Ukrainian one into blackout,” he said. Correspondingly, he said, no nation has then tried to restore such an enormous system.
Although progress in repairs is made every hour, he said, it takes a terrible toll on the workers to see them destroyed by Russian strikes. “You work, recover it, and they hit it again and again,” he said. “Still, the recovery works continue.”
Volodymyr Kudrytsky, the head of Ukrenergo, said that energy crews were traveling across Kherson, working step by step with mine clearers, known as sappers. It can take more than an hour to clear a single yard of land, he said, so the work will take time.
“Our repairmen follow the sappers carefully, but persistently and stubbornly,” he said.
Serhiy Kruk, the head of the state emergency service, said the scale of the mines scattered across Ukraine by Russian forces was hard to fathom.
With mines covering an area about the size of Austria, he said it would take months before power and other infrastructure could be restored to allow the return of “full-fledged life” across recently recaptured areas.
So far, only 288 square miles of the 61,000 square miles freed of Russian control have been cleared of land mines, improvised explosive devices and unexploded ordnance, according to the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs. Washington has committed to providing $91.5 million for demining efforts in Ukraine over the coming year.
As Ukraine retakes territory once occupied by Russia, the scale of the job grows.
Closer to Kyiv, in the village of Myrotske northwest of the capital, the painstaking, nerve-racking task of demining was in full swing.
Capt. Vadym Derimov, 27, gathered his crew from the Kyiv Regional Emergency Services department for their daily pep talk on a recent morning, asking how they were feeling and how their families were doing.
As his mine-clearing team stood shoulder-to-shoulder in front of a pile of twisted rocket tubes and damaged artillery shells, the precarious nature of their task was clear. Charred and twisted tree trunks lay nearby, stretching 100 feet in every direction around a crater the size of a swimming pool in the sandy ground.
“Our work needs 100 percent concentration, so if someone is sick or has any problems at home, it’s better not to be on duty that day,” Captain Derimov said.
The destruction was the result of what he speculated had been a strike by a Tochka-U ballistic missile, launched in late March by Ukrainian forces on a large Russian command post and ammunition stockpile in this pine forest a few miles from Hostomel airport, northwest of Kyiv.
“One day of this war equals five years of work for deminers,” Captain Derimov said.
In the forest outside Kyiv, booby traps were everywhere. Two of Captain Derimov’s men delicately removed and defused a hand grenade that had been attached to a tree with a barely visible trip wire intended to set it off.
Suddenly, a few minutes later, a boom sounded in the forest, followed by a cloud of white smoke. “Is everyone alive?” Captain Derimov asked over his two-way radio.
A tree branch had fallen and tripped a signal flare that had been rigged up to alert the Russians of sneak attacks. Everyone on Captain Derimov’s crew was fine.
Captain Derimov took a moment to reflect on the bigger picture, and why they were pressing on with their mission.
“Our work is dangerous, but the benefit that we bring and the gratitude of people are much bigger,” he said. “You can’t even imagine how grateful people are when we clear their settlement from explosives and it becomes safe to walk there.”
Victoria Kim contributed reporting from Seoul, Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels and Anna Lukinova from Myrotske, Ukraine.