11th Dec 2023


No internet, light, heat: how war-hit Ukrainians remote-work

  • Anastasia's wardrobe-turned-work shelter (Photo: Anastasia K.)
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It was a Friday in mid-December when Anastasia and her husband woke up to the sound of explosions and ran for cover. There was no electricity or water. The last she heard from her father in Zaporiya, there had already been 12 shelling incidents. Friday was followed by Saturday and Sunday. The flat where they live in Dnipro had lost warmth in those days, and electricity and water still did not flow, but "the worst part was not knowing what was going on outside, and whether our relatives or friends were OK", Anastasia told EUobserver in a video call.

She is one of five Ukrainian employees working remotely for a Latvian-based company, Bordio. Teleworking is not new to them, but as Anastasia (EUobserver is only using interviewees first names, to protect their identities) explains, there is nothing romantic about doing it in the dark in a make-shift shelter in the laundry room. "Two walls will protect you from splinters. I have a blanket on the floor there and fairy lights on batteries so that there is lighting," she describes.

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  • Evacuating a shopping mall in Lviv (Photo: Dana S.)

About 40 percent of the country's energy infrastructure has been destroyed by the Russian-initiated war, now a month shy of a year old.

In the midst of winter, and with energy connections damaged, Ukraine's energy deficit is around 20-25 percent of its population's total consumption, Oleksandr Kharchenko, director of the Energy Industry Research Centre, said by phone.

The power outages are complete blackouts for the Ukrainians. Some power outages are planned because of the aforementioned deficit, others, like the one described by Anastasia, are unpredictable and can last for several days.

"Periods from October looked like absolutely terrorist strategies to destroy civilian infrastructure like energy grids", Kharchenko says. "It is clearly a strategy to destroy supply in winter time, with minus 10 or minus 15 Celsius outside. These are conditions for absolute disaster. It is out of any rules of war".

The expert estimates that 12.5 million households have been affected by the damage to Ukraine's energy systems.

Although some areas, those closest to the front lines, have little or no connection, technical and maintenance staff are constantly trying to rebuild and repair damaged plants. A few days ago, Kiev had 18 to 19 hours of electricity a day, but a fortnight ago it was only six, he adds.

When the lights go out, "only mobile internet can save us", says Leonid, a front-end developer working remotely for a French company from Odessa, the port city in the south of Ukraine.

Last week, Russia launched two missiles into the region where he is based. The attack took him offline for six to eight hours. He called his boss and explained the situation. He would make up for the lost hours over the weekend. "I work when I can, and that is an acceptable solution for [my boss] because he fully understands what is happening," he explains by phone.

The situation is somewhat more complicated for Dana, which is located in the west of the country, close to the Polish border. "Everyday it is a real quest. It is really hard to plan anything," she sends in a voice note from a shopping centre in Lviv.

Dana is a recruiter for a company providing remote workers, and has to go to the shopping centre to find a generator and wifi to arrange her interviews. The day EUobserver contacts her, she barely had electricity for a couple of hours and when she sat down to work, the alarms went off to be evacuated. She sends images showing dozens of people sheltering in the underground car park of the shopping centre. "This is my day-to-day," she wrote on Telegram.

Leonid normally works from his home in Odessa, where they have a noticeboard that tells him when he will — and will not — have a connection to organise his work: sometimes he works at weekends, sometimes at night…

Screenshot sent by Leonid with electricity time-slots. (Photo: Leonid D.)

Something similar happens to Vitaly, a designer who now lives in the western part of the country, who explains he cannot work from nine to six, as he would normally do, but only when he has a connection.

Vitaly originally comes from a small village near the Black Sea and the Russian border, more than 9,000 kilometres from his current residence. His father still lives there, despite the Russian occupation of the village. He does not want to leave the family home. But Vitaly had to leave in order to be able to work in better conditions, yet he is alone.

"I have no friends or acquaintances to talk to. Most of my close environment is at the front, so I have zero contact outside the flat where I live," he explains in a video call from his current flat, where he arrived after a three-day drive through Ukraine.

Eight million gone, six million displaced

He is not the only one. Some 340 days after Russia invaded Ukraine, nearly eight million people have left the country, and around six million are displaced within Ukraine's borders, according to UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and International Organization for Migration (IOM) data.

The losses have been at all levels: human, social, economic, material, cultural… Anastasia remains in Ukraine because she feels she is more useful there. She has no children and can stay behind to provide support or go to the front line to help her own people in case of attack.

Vitaly is tired, he just wants to live a normal life and explains that, although it may sound unpatriotic, if the war were to endure in the longer term, he would like to leave the country to "feel safe" again.

From February to November 2022, PAX, a peace organisation, calculated 213 military attacks on Ukrainian energy infrastructure, of which 63 were verified. 17 of the country's 24 regions were damaged, especially in October. The worst incidents took place in Zaporiyia, where Europe's largest nuclear power plant is located, but also in Donetsk, Kharkiv, Dnipro, Kyiv, and Mykolaiv regions.

The United Nations reported in December that half of the Ukrainian energy infrastructure was destroyed by Russia, putting millions of people at risk in the face of plunging temperatures. Some have called this strategy the weaponisation of winter.

For Kharchenko, Russia's strategy has only one outcome: "We are waiting for the next wave of attacks, and we cannot predict how it will be, but we are resilient".


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