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Former Ukrainian deputy health minister Mladena Kachurets on Ukraine's brutal winter

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Surviving a war with Russia is hard enough, but Ukrainians are now facing another harsh reality - a winter with major power shortages resulting largely from Russian strikes on their country's power grid. And while the U.S. has pledged $53 million to repair that damaged infrastructure, and NATO has vowed to help restore capacity, frigid temperatures are hitting Ukraine right now. It's dipping to the low 20s and even below most nights, getting no warmer than 30 degrees most days, and it's only going to get worse. We're joined now by Mladena Kachurets, Ukraine's former deputy health minister. Welcome to the program.

MLADENA KACHURETS: Hello.

RASCOE: You are in the capital right now in Kyiv. What is life like there without heat and electricity?

KACHURETS: It's quite challenging for us. The streets are in total darkness. The traffic lights do not work. The most hard part is to live in the homes without any electricity for 12 or 16 hours per day. Apartment blocks are, like, about 20- or 25-story buildings. So people have really big trouble with even getting in their homes without an elevator because the elevators are off when the electricity is not supplied. Some people get stuck in the elevators. Elderly people or parents with newborns or people who have diseases and have really big trouble getting in or out their homes. A lot of people use electric gadgets like cooking surface blenders or whatever else, like, kitchen supplies are that work from electricity and they cannot even cook food for themselves.

RASCOE: Do you know at this point, like, when power will go out and how many hours a day you might have power at this point?

KACHURETS: As for now, it's from three to about six hours per day we've got electricity. Mostly at night, so people got a chance to do their laundry or to cook food from, like, 1 a.m. till, you know, 4 in the morning or 6 in the morning.

RASCOE: You know, we talked about the frigid temperatures. What are most people in your area - like, what are they doing to stay warm when the electricity goes out?

KACHURETS: I mean, in some houses you can use portable fireplaces. Some people do not have the technical possibility to set out those fireplaces. So they have to dress up very warm or find a place, the gas stations or hospitals and in lobbies of hotels, where the fuel generators provide the alternative electricity. Some people are just cooperating, trying to find ways to stay over at somebody's - you know, their relatives' homes or their friends. They are cooperating even by leaving survival kit in the elevators in case someone is stuck in the elevator - bottled water or biscuits and portable light there, and other, like, useful things that you might need while waiting for electricity to be provided.

RASCOE: Sometimes when people don't have heat, they can do things that end up not being safe, like use a space heater or something like that that can catch fire or use something where you end up getting, like, carbon monoxide poisoning from generators and things like that. Is that a concern?

KACHURETS: We've actually had some emergency messages that some people have died from poisoning with those pollutions made by self-made gadgets for generating electricity. They actually do not have much choice. They need to heat up. However, some of those fuel generators are not good quality or they are not being used correctly. And this is when we got these casualties.

RASCOE: It's been reported that Russia, through trying to weaponize winter, is trying to break Ukrainians' will to fight. Do you think that's a risk, a possibility?

KACHURETS: I think it's going to be quite the opposite, and people are not going to surrender. We are even more inspired to fight because people here - they do not want to be conquered. They do not want to be ruled by those who doesn't have any idea about our values. People resist more, try to support each other and not break our will.

RASCOE: That's Mladena Kachurets speaking to us from Kyiv. Thank you so much for making time to speak with us today and especially at such a difficult time.

KACHURETS: Thank you. Thank American people for supporting us. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.