Interview with UN Coordinator for Ukraine "If There Is a Complete Blackout, It Will Be a Catastrophe"

Eleven million people in Ukraine are currently receiving humanitarian aid. The United Nations and NGOs are still able to provide for them, but perhaps not for much longer, warns Denise Brown, the highest-ranking UN diplomat working in Ukraine.
Interview Conducted By Ann-Dorit Boy
A resident pushes his bike on a snow-covered street next to destroyed residential buildings in Borodyanka near Kyiv. There are only occasional electricity blackouts here, but that could change.

A resident pushes his bike on a snow-covered street next to destroyed residential buildings in Borodyanka near Kyiv. There are only occasional electricity blackouts here, but that could change.

Foto:

Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP

DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Brown, I can see that you are dressed rather warmly with a down vest in your office in central Kyiv. Are you and your coworkers also affected by electricity cuts and interruptions to heating following Russia’s targeted attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure?

Denise Brown: My apartment is fine right now. I chose my place strategically, very close to the government buildings. But most of our colleagues did not have electricity and water for several days after the latest strikes. Just like everybody else, I rent my apartment and I am dependent on the electricity and the water provided by the City of Kyiv. And just like everybody else, when the air siren goes off, I have to find the nearest shelter.

DER SPIEGEL: You are overseeing a massive aid effort in Ukraine, and this year you had the largest budget in United Nations history: $4.3 billion.

Brown: Yes, the appeal for donations to Ukraine this year was the largest in the world. For 2023, we are planning to really try to keep the numbers down, and we are appealing for $3.9 billion from the international community. We have to make sure that we focus on the acute humanitarian response. We are providing people with the basic necessities. But there are also more and more Ukrainians who are slipping into poverty as a result of the war and also need help. For now, Afghanistan has the largest humanitarian aid budget for 2023, but we have to see how the situation develops. The war in Ukraine is not over, and the situation could deteriorate at any time.

DER SPIEGEL: What is your biggest concern at the moment?

Brown: If there is a complete blackout, it will be a catastrophe. Having to help a country of 40 million people would exceed the capacity of the humanitarian community. We need to think together about what to do in that case – and we need to do that right now.

DER SPIEGEL: Even without further fighting and air strikes, the suffering in Ukraine is already immense. The UN estimates that 17 million Ukrainians are in need as a result of the war. You are assisting more than 11 million of the most severely affected. How many staff do the UN aid agencies have in the country and in what locations?

Brown: We have just over 2,000 staff in the country: about 1,600 Ukrainian employees and 400 international ones. Then there are the non-governmental organizations, our humanitarian partners, and they also have hundreds and hundreds of employees. We are focusing on communities close to the frontline in the eight regions that were directly impacted by the fighting. We have offices in Dnipro, Kharkiv and Poltava. We just changed the security rules for Zaporizhzhia. Now, staff can stay there overnight and work there in the long term. We have just opened an office in Mykolaiv, where I stayed last week. We are going to have a small team there. And we have a big team in Odessa. So, we are covering the full length of the frontline now.

A woman takes care of her son during a electricity blackout in Uzhorod, Ukraine. Because Russia is deliberately targeting the country's energy infrastructure, sometimes candles are the only possibility for light at night.

A woman takes care of her son during a electricity blackout in Uzhorod, Ukraine. Because Russia is deliberately targeting the country's energy infrastructure, sometimes candles are the only possibility for light at night.

Foto: Ukrinform / dpa

DER SPIEGEL: Are you assisting people in the areas that have recently been liberated with the help of the Ukrainian army, like Kherson, for example?

Brown: Yes, we do react to needs as quickly as possible when places became accessible. We go there within 72 hours. We bring aid supplies to the Kharkiv and Kherson regions. However, there are places along the Dniepr River that we still cannot access because of shelling.

DER SPIEGEL: According to their mandate, UN aid agencies are required to assist all Ukrainians impacted by the conflict regardless of where they are located. Have you also been able to cross the frontline and assist people in areas controlled by the Russian Federation?

Brown: No, absolutely not. We regularly provide notification to both governments that we would like to send humanitarian convoys. We name the day, the route, the supplies. Unfortunately, the Russian Federation has not granted us that access so far. We request access almost every week, and I will keep pushing on that. Because, as you say, it is my responsibility to provide assistance to all Ukrainians. We are prepared to do that. If I get the authorization from the Russian Federation tomorrow, then the convoy will go tomorrow.

DER SPIEGEL: Have you been able to assess the needs in the Russian-controlled areas? And are there any organizations trying to reach people there?

Brown: We were not able to assess the situation in the Russian-controlled territories ourselves. But I assume that what happens on one side is also happening on the other side as well. People have been displaced by the war and supply chains have been interrupted. Communication is disrupted, and deliveries of medicines and insulin have been disrupted. People could not prepare themselves for the winter as they would normally do. There are some organizations that operate across the frontline, but it is nothing at scale. And there are no efforts for "winterization" – that is, preparation for the winter. Today, it is -4 degrees Celsius (25 degrees Fahrenheit) in Kyiv, and the situation is deteriorating every day. But I am hopeful that we will be given access, and we will continue to push it at all levels within the UN.

"The situation is deteriorating every day."

Denise Brown, the highest-ranking UN diplomat in Ukraine

DER SPIEGEL: What does the term "winterization" actually mean?

Brown: We need to make sure that heating systems work, that windows are repaired. Many of the windows have been blown out because of the blasts from the missile strikes. We need to make sure there are no leaks in the roofs. The International Organization for Migration (IOM), in particular, is making such repairs. They have 90 teams of mobile engineers. We provide emergency shelter repair kits, especially for people in Kherson. We have huge amounts of mattresses, blankets and clothes that are being brought in at the request of the authorities, and on top of that the generators. That is to ensure that when the authorities set up a collective heating center, where people can come for the day, they have a generator to run it. We are also providing hot meals where they are required. There are a number of measures in place to ensure people have a warm and safe place to be during the coldest winter months.

Denise Brown (center) during a visit to Kherson. Ukrainian troops recently drove the Russians out of the city. But supplies in the city remain precarious.

Denise Brown (center) during a visit to Kherson. Ukrainian troops recently drove the Russians out of the city. But supplies in the city remain precarious.

Foto: Sam Mednick / AP

DER SPIEGEL: How did the massive attacks on energy infrastructure that began on October 10 change the situation for you?

Brown: The government estimates that about 50 percent of their energy infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed by targeted strikes. So, there are still rolling blackouts. The government has appealed to the entire international community, the UN and others to bring in materials to keep the repairs going. So, everyone is working to get those materials. The mayor of Kyiv was planning to set up 1,000 heating centers, but now he says they are going to have 3,000.

DER SPIEGEL: So, the Ukrainian authorities’ preparations for a possible blackout are separate from the UN’s humanitarian assistance?

Brown: Ukraine is a very capable country, especially in a place like Kyiv. But it is important to say that if we are asked for support, we will find a way to provide that help. The worst would be if it got to -20 degrees Celsius in Kyiv in winter and then the electricity went out. The population here, especially the elderly, would need to be protected. We have our own contingency plan, and we aren’t going anywhere. The UN and the NGOs will stay put. I wouldn’t keep all the staff here, but I would keep a core of people to make sure our work continues.

DER SPIEGEL: The war is ongoing, and we are witnessing fresh destruction every day. I assume that you aren’t even dreaming of the reconstruction phase yet.

Brown: I am not dreaming at all, because I’m so tired. But there are parts of the country, such as the Sumi region in the northeast that were heavily damaged in the initial stages of the war but are now mostly protected from air strikes. The governor there has asked us to sit down with his team in January and start looking at what we can do in the area of agricultural investment and the restoration of social services. After all, people have lost paperwork, IDs and homes. So, that’s what we will be looking at in January. We will look at early recovery activities where it is appropriate.

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