Brussels, Belgium – As Russia’s war in Ukraine enters its tenth month, the colder winter months ahead will come under pressure from a population of strong resolve but limited resources.
This week there were renewed attacks across the country targeted critical infrastructure and destroyed power and water supplies in several cities, including the capital Kyiv. The bombing was so severe that electricity was also lost in parts of Moldova.
According to Ukraine’s Western allies, Russian President Vladimir Putin is using winter as a weapon. Observers say he hopes the frigid weather will spark another refugee crisis and test European unity and support for Ukraine as inflation — with excessive energy prices — spirals out of control across the continent.
“The Ukrainian people must face Putin’s barbaric terrorist attack on the country’s civilian infrastructure this winter without electricity and in many places without running water,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement on Wednesday. declaration. , a day of widespread attacks that plunged Ukraine into darkness.
She said the EU will continue to support Ukraine “for as long as it takes,” NATO reiterated on Friday.
“We are working hard to hit Russia where it hurts, to weaken even further its ability to wage war against Ukraine,” she said.
Since Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, more than 11 million Ukrainians have entered the European Union and the 27-member bloc has quickly provided shelter through its temporary protection regime.
Under this directive, Ukrainians will be allowed to use the bloc’s medical services and accommodation and also work freely in the EU until 2024.
Bram Frouws, director of the Geneva-based Mixed Migration Centre, told Al Jazeera that as more Ukrainians move towards the EU this winter, the bloc faces new challenges.
“What remains to be seen is how the European people and their governments will react to this. They have all been very welcoming and supportive so far, but at the same time, this support may wane as Europe also faces an energy crisis. But I still think people will be empathetic to Ukrainian refugees, despite the high energy bills,” he said.
But Anitta Hipper, spokeswoman for the European Commission for Home Affairs, told Al Jazeera that Europe is prepared for any scenario.
“Through the bloc’s solidarity platform, the European Commission is constantly discussing a contingency plan with member states and Schengen associated countries. With this plan, we have already made a lot of progress to increase the reception capacity and ensure that the reception facilities are well equipped for the winter,” she said.
Still, Vera Gruzova, a 34-year-old from Odessa who currently lives in Brussels, told Al Jazeera that Ukrainians new to the EU have faced administrative difficulties.
“In some EU countries, the EU Temporary Protection Directive requires Ukrainians to have an address when submitting their documents,” says Gruzova, who arrived in Belgium with her son on March 5.
“When the war started, support groups on social media channels were filled with many people agreeing to house Ukrainians, making it easy for many of us to get an address immediately. But in recent months, people have found it difficult to quickly find host families or short-term homes, forcing the administration to work harder to take advantage of the temporary protection scheme,” she added.
Anastasia Varvarina, a 39-year-old photographer from Odessa, also now in Brussels, said she has seen several social media posts from Ukrainians asking for help finding accommodation to process temporary protection documents.
“When I came to the EU with my best friend and four cats, we were really overwhelmed by all the kindness and support that was showered on us. People were quick to receive us, which is not easy for people who have just experienced a trauma. We are so thankful for the immediate support,” she told Al Jazeera.
Recognizing this obstacle, Hipper said the European Commission launched “the Safe Homes Initiative” in July to help EU countries and civil society ensure safe housing for Ukrainians fleeing war.
“While we have not yet seen a large number of people arrive from Ukraine with the onset of winter, we continue to coordinate with private and international organizations to ensure that everyone who arrives has access to housing facilities and has their temporary protection documents processed quickly “, she said. told Al Jazeera.
What else does the EU do?
According to a report by the United Nations Refugee Agency, 4.8 million refugees from Ukraine have so far registered for the EU’s temporary protection scheme.
On October 31, Poland, an EU country bordering Ukraine, registered the highest number of Ukrainians under the Temporary Protection Directive
The bloc has also rolled out 523 million euros ($543 million) in humanitarian aid to Ukraine, pledging to further support Ukraine’s neighbors such as the Czech Republic, Moldova, Poland and Slovakia.
Frouws explained that the bloc understands that strong support for Ukraine and nearby countries is likely to lead to fewer people traveling further west, to countries like France or Germany.
“So there is also a bit of self-interest. But overall there is pan-European support when it comes to Ukrainian refugees,” he added.
Putin caused the refugee crisis?
On Tuesday, Andriy Yermak, head of the Ukrainian president’s office, said Russia is trying to destabilize Europe.
“Their goal is obvious: to cause a large-scale humanitarian catastrophe, to provoke a new refugee crisis in Europe. Either force Ukraine to make peace or force the West to force Ukraine to make peace,” he wrote in a tweet.
While the Kremlin previously denied arming migrants, the EU has begun strengthening its borders with Russia and Moscow’s main ally, Belarus.
Countries like Poland have started building barbed wire along the border with Russia and Lithuania has built a wall along the border with Belarus.
“There is fear in Europe that something like that what happened last November with the migration crisis along the bloc’s borders with Belarus, could happen again,” Frouws told Al Jazeera.
“But [fortifying European borders] could also close the door to Russians in urgent need of international protection or to other displaced persons of other nationalities seeking asylum. It is therefore important to come up with a better and integrated approach. Walls are not the answer,’ he said.
As EU interior ministers meet in Brussels on November 25 to discuss migration issues along all migration routes, including from Ukraine, Hipper reiterated that the bloc is ready for any challenge.
“Whatever Russia does on migration, we will respond by fully supporting the Ukrainians and people of other nationalities affected by Putin’s actions,” she said.