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Ukrainians prep for winter. If Russia hits heating systems, cities will freeze

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

It's one of the most popular conversation topics in Ukraine right now. Even in the depths of summer, soldiers and civilians alike are murmuring, trading advice and worrying about what to do when the cold winter arrives. Politicians trying to get ahead of the problem are trying to reassure the public that they're doing everything they can to prepare. Still, many fear the war may make this upcoming Ukrainian winter the harshest in a generation. NPR's Tim Mak reports.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Weeks like this in the capital city of Kyiv tend to have highs in the 70s - sunny days with just an occasional thunderstorm, warm and comfortable. But everywhere across Ukraine, people are already making preparations for a harsh, cold, bitter winter ahead. Lviv is a city in western Ukraine that has been relatively safe and far from the front lines. Here's Andriy Sadovyi, its mayor, warning well in advance of the coming challenges through a public video.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDRIY SADOVYI: (Through interpreter) Our goal is to be prepared for the situation that can hardly be imagined. We need to be ready. We need to have a supply of all necessary things.

MAK: The urgency of the task is even greater when you get closer to the battlefield. In Kharkiv, where the outskirts of the city is just miles from the Russian border, missile strikes and artillery can be heard day and night. Oleksiy Lomskiy is a businessman who has since pivoted to working for the military and distributing humanitarian relief to the needy.

OLEKSIY LOMSKIY: (Through interpreter) I would say it's not just going to be a huge problem; it's going to be a huge tragedy, I believe.

MAK: He has an idea for why Russian forces have not yet destroyed the city's heating systems.

LOMSKIY: (Through interpreter) Our heating infrastructure has not been destroyed just so we don't have enough time to fix it by winter.

MAK: He says there's no way to protect the city from bombardment because of how close it is to Russian territory. The only solution is for civilians to leave.

LOMSKIY: (Through interpreter) How to be prepared for winter - I believe only by giving opportunity for as many people as possible to escape because, here, winter is going to be horrible.

MAK: The fine weather of summer has traditionally been a good time for rural Ukrainians to gather wood, a primary source of heating for their homes. So it makes some sense why this is the time that it's becoming an urgent concern. Yuri, a Ukrainian farmer in a rural region outside Kharkiv, asked us not to use his surname because he has an uncommon one, and his farm had already been attacked before by Russian forces. He said he's concerned about a critical shortage of firewood this winter. And he's concerned about his workers.

YURI: (Through interpreter) The ones that have resources are starting to buy wood, preparing for winter. But many people are without jobs now because of the war. Our workers rely on us that we will give them their share, and they will buy wood for that money. And if we can't harvest, we won't be able to pay.

MAK: Living in a large city like Kyiv also has its vulnerabilities. Cities of more than a million people in Ukraine tend to rely on centralized heating systems.

OLEKSANDR KHARCHENKO: Absolutely centralized, that every heat to every multi-apartment building deliverable by the pipes. And all the pipes take heat from the two big, big station.

MAK: That's Oleksandr Kharchenko, the head of a key Ukrainian think tank and also an advisor to the Ministry of Energy. He's describing how hot water moves through nearly 600,000 kilometers of pipes to warm Kyiv residences up in the winter and how exposed the setup is in a time of war.

KHARCHENKO: This is a huge risk of missiles attack to infrastructure objects, and all big cities, these have vulnerability, every and each of them. And it's not a secret, and it's not something special.

MAK: He points out the cities in Ukraine, such as Kremenchuk, Okhtyrka and Kharkiv, that have already had their central heating stations attacked. He says that if Russian forces are able to attack these centralized heating stations in the winter, causing water pipes to freeze and cities to go cold, it will force millions to flee.

KHARCHENKO: This will be a terroristic act because this act has not any military meaning. It's a genocide. It's a war against civil people. It's not connected to military, to military operation.

MAK: Reactions to the notion of a frigid winter at war are as diverse as Ukrainians themselves. In Kharkiv, not far from the front lines, a cook doing humanitarian work for needy locals admitted the season would be extremely hard, but the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which started in February, began in the winter. Bitter as it may be, it would not be their first time enduring it.

Tim Mak, NPR News, Kyiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE NATIONAL SONG, "NOBODY ELSE WILL BE THERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.