Opinion: As winter bites, Putin has a new tactic

This week, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk went so far as to warn citizens who fled the country when Russia invaded not to return home this winter amid prolonged blackouts caused by strikes on the power grid.

“We must survive the winter,” he said, “[If people come back] the power grid may fail.”

Electricity rationing has become the new grim reality of war as Russia tries to destroy Ukraine’s economic capacity and force its leaders to the negotiating table.

Russia has hit Ukraine’s critical infrastructure with missile and drone attacks in recent weeks — 30% of the country’s power plants have been destroyed, according to President Vladimir Zelensky.
Its energy minister has warned that Ukraine may need to import electricity to survive the winter. Until recently, Ukraine exported electricity to the EU market.

Increasing the pressure

The Russian military’s poor performance on the battlefield, particularly in recent months, has prompted President Vladimir Putin and his generals to change tactics. As Ukrainian forces continue to retake the strategically important city of Kherson, Russia’s military campaign has shifted to cutting off electricity and heat from civilians.
As Ukrainians stock up on candles and firewood to prepare for power outages in winter temperatures that dip below -20 degrees Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit), Western leaders must consider what they can do to prevent Putin from targeting Ukrainian civilians and creating a humanitarian crisis. disaster
For European countries, there is great concern that the collapse of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure could bring the economy to its knees and dramatically increase the number of refugees heading west. An estimated 8 million Ukrainians have fled to EU countries to escape the war, according to Schengen Visa data.
Putin is increasingly forced to engage in new, asymmetric ways of warfare because he risks losing the underperforming Russian army on the battlefield if further demoralized. The spectacular withdrawal of the forces deployed in northeastern Ukraine in September was a demonstration of the fragility of the Russian military.

On the contrary, the Ukrainian army continues to show more resistance than the Kremlin expected. Western countries have provided enough equipment and training to mount a serious counterattack and threaten to retake all the territory taken since the full-scale invasion began in February.

The latest mobilization of Russia’s roughly 300,000 troops has looked grim, with some reportedly sent to the front without proper equipment or refresher training. These reinforcements will quickly become nothing more than active if they are not motivated to fight.

For the Russian population, the initial mobilization means that the conflict in Ukraine is no longer an abstraction seen on television as a ‘special military operation’, as Putin keeps saying. Instead, it is a war in which ordinary Russians are expected to die, for reasons that are neither clear nor believable.

Energy as a weapon of war

Moscow’s targeting of power plants is a clear violation of international humanitarian law. Its aim is to inflict suffering on the civilian population and to convince Ukrainians that the price of continuing to fight is too high.
In the first months of the war, Russian missile attacks destroyed Ukraine’s largest oil refinery and many of its fuel storage facilities. The aim was to stop the Ukrainian army from moving its vehicles. After the initial outage caused shortages of diesel and gasoline in Kyiv and other major cities, Ukraine found alternative supplies from several EU countries that have so far held firm.
At the same time, Putin’s efforts to persuade Ukraine’s European allies to stop supporting the war effort to use gas as a weapon have failed despite the high costs of subsidizing expensive alternatives to Gazprom’s supply.
Crucially, Germany, Europe’s largest economy, which before the war imported 55% of its gas from Russia, now has enough gas stored from other sources to see it through the winter without major disruptions.

How the West should respond

To counter Putin’s latest escalation, European governments must be prepared to accept more refugees in the short term. At the same time, NATO countries must supply more weapons to strengthen Ukraine’s air defenses, as well as provide resources to help Ukrainian engineers repair damage to power plants.

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Putin is in a desperate race against time. The longer the war drags on, the greater the risk that Russia’s economic and human losses will undermine its hold on power. Support for the war is dwindling and unprecedented Western sanctions are taking an increasingly toll.
China and India, Russia’s most important allies, have also expressed concern about Putin’s actions.
As Moscow tries to intimidate the West with the possibility of deploying a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, it has chosen a conventional strategy to try to reverse its fortunes on the battlefield.
So far, Ukraine has coped well with the economic consequences of the war. Basic services, including transport and telecommunications, have continued and despite the 30% devaluation, the currency has not collapsed.
However, the country’s budget deficit is growing and is expected to reach 40,000 billion dollars by the end of the year, equivalent to 30-40% of GDP.

With Russia focused on destroying the energy sector, Ukraine’s need for macro-financial assistance from its Western allies could grow dramatically.

The real test of the West’s commitment to Ukraine is about to come. For Ukraine to be victorious in this war, Western governments will have to dig much deeper and provide the country with the military and financial resources it needs to continue fighting.