Opinion: As winter bites, Putin has a new tactic
Editor’s Note: John Lough is an Associate Fellow with the Russia & Ukraine Programme at Chatham House and the author of “Germany’s Russia Problem.” The views expressed in the commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
With evenings drawing in fast as winter approaches, the lights are going out across Ukraine.
This week, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk went as far as to warn citizens who fled the country when Russia invaded, not to return home this winter amid rolling blackouts caused by strikes on the power grid.
“We need to survive this winter,” she said, adding that “[If people come back] the electrical grid might 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 targeted Ukraine’s critical infrastructure with a barrage of missile and drone attacks in recent weeks – 30% of the country’s power plants have been destroyed, according to to President Volodymyr Zelensky.
His energy minister has warned that Ukraine might need to import electricity to survive the winter. Until recently, Ukraine was exporting electricity to the EU market.
The poor performance of the Russian army on the battlefield, particularly in recent months, has made President Vladimir Putin and his generals change tactics. As Ukrainian forces continue their advance to recapture the strategically important city of Kherson, the Russian military campaign has shifted to depriving civilians of electricity and heat.
While Ukrainians stock up on candles and firewood in preparation for power outages in winter temperatures that regularly fall below -20 degrees Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit), western leaders are having to consider what they can do to prevent Putin targeting Ukrainian civilians and creating a humanitarian disaster.
For European countries, there is a real concern that the devasation of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure could bring the economy to its knees and dramatically increase the numbers of refugees heading westwards. An estimated 8 million Ukrainians have fled to EU countries to escape the war, according to Schengen Visa data.
Putin is increasingly having to fight the war by new asymmetric means because the underperforming Russian army risks losing on the battlefield if it becomes further demoralized. The spectacular retreat of forces deployed in northeast Ukraine in September was an indicator of the Russian military’s fragility.
By contrast, the Ukrainian army continues to show greater resilience than the Kremlin expected. Western countries have provided just enough equipment and training for it to mount a serious counter-offensive and threaten to re-take all the territory captured since the start of the full -scale invasion in February.
Russia’s recent mobilization of around 300,000 soldiers has looked shambolic with reports that some have been sent to the front without proper equipment or any form of refresher training. These reinforcements will rapidly become a liability rather than an asset 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 in the form of a “special military operation,” as Putin continues to call it. Instead, it is a war in which average Russians are expected to die for reasons that are neither clear nor compelling.
Moscow’s shift to targeting power plants is a clear breach of international humanitarian law. Its purpose is to inflict suffering on the civilian population and persuade Ukrainians that the price of continuing to fight is too high.
In the early months of the war, Russian missile strikes destroyed Ukraine’s largest oil refinery and many of its fuel storage facilities. The goal was to stop the Ukrainian army moving its vehicles. Despite the initial disruption that led to diesel and gasoline shortages 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 use gas as a weapon to persuade Ukraine’s European allies to stop supporting the war effort have so failed despite the huge costs of subsidizing expensive alternatives to Gazprom’s supplies.
Crucially, Germany, the largest European economy that imported 55% of its gas from Russia before the war, now has sufficient gas in storage from other sources to see it through the winter without major disruption.
To counter Putin’s latest escalation, European governments need to be ready to accept more refugees in the short-term. At the same time, NATO countries must supply more weaponry to bolster Ukraine’s air defences as well as provide the resources to help Ukrainian engineers to repair the damage to power plants.
Putin is in a desperate race against time. The longer the war goes on, the greater the risk that Russia’s economic and human losses will weaken his grip on power. Support for the war is waning and unprecedented Western sanctions are increasingly taking their toll.
China and India, Russia’s most important allies, have also expressed concern about Putin’s actions.
While Moscow tries to intimidate the West with the possibility that it could deploy 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 effects of the war. Basic services, including transportation and telecommunications have continued and despite a devaluation of 30%, the currency has not collapsed.
However, the country’s budget deficit is ballooning and is forecast to reach $40 billion 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 support from its Western allies could grow dramatically.
The real test of Western commitment to Ukraine is about to come. For Ukraine to be the victor in this war will require Western governments to dig much deeper and provide the country with the military and financial resources it needs to continue fighting.