Weaponizing Winter

The Russian strategy appears to be to ‘either force Ukraine to make peace or force the West to force Ukraine to make peace,’ a Zelensky adviser says.

AP/Bernat Armangue)
A Ukrainian soldier near Kherson, southern Ukraine, on November 23, 2022. AP/Bernat Armangue)

With snow forecast to fall throughout Ukraine this weekend, Russia’s missile attacks against electricity infrastructure are designed to render Ukraine uninhabitable this winter, Ukrainian officials charge.

Russia aims “to turn the cold of winter into a weapon of mass destruction,” President Zelensky warned Tuesday in his nightly fireside chat to his compatriots.

A Zelensky adviser, Andriy Yermak, tweeted: “Their goal is obvious: to cause a large-scale humanitarian catastrophe, to provoke another refugee crisis in Europe. It’s either force Ukraine to make peace or force the West to force Ukraine to make peace.”

Cold temperatures will force 2 million to 3 million Ukrainians to leave their homes in coming weeks, the regional director for the World Health Organization, Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, predicted at a press conference at Kyiv on Monday. Saying this could be “life-threatening for millions of Ukrainians,” he concluded: “Put simply, this winter will be about survival.”

During nine months of war, about 17 million Ukrainians have been displaced, either internally or leaving the country as refugees. This is almost half of a 2020 electronic census population estimate of 37.3 million. More recently, in an echo of British determination during the 1940-41 blitz, 70 percent of Ukrainians told Gallup pollsters in September that they want the war to end with a Ukrainian military victory.

On Wednesday, a missile barrage left Kyiv and other cities without power and water. Ukraine’s Air Force said the air defense shot down 51 of about 70 Russian cruise missiles launched Wednesday from warplanes and from two boats in the Black Sea.

This was the latest in a 6-week Russian bombing campaign that has destroyed substations, transformers and power lines. Ukrainian energy officials suspect that behind the precision bombing is inside knowledge of the electricity network – either from defectors or from Russian engineers who built the system in the Soviet era.

“The scale of the destruction is colossal,” head of Ukrenergo, the sole operator of the country’s high-voltage transmission lines, Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, told reporters at Kyiv Tuesday.

At the United Nations, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Wednesday that it appeared “Putin is determined to reduce Ukraine’s energy facilities to rubble,” and “clearly weaponizing winter to inflict immense suffering on the Ukrainian people.”  She described his goal as to “freeze the country into submission.”

Moving beyond electricity, Russia last week bombed 10 gas production facilities in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine is believed to have enough gas to get through the winter, due to low demand and massive underground reservoirs in western Ukraine. Ukraine’s economy may shrink by one-third this year.

Turning the gas war on Europe, Gazprom, Russian’s state-backed gas export monopoly, has threatened to cut gas transfers next Monday across Ukraine, the last functioning pipeline from Russia to Europe. Gazprom charges that Ukraine is holding back deliveries to neighboring Moldova.

“Russia continues to use energy resources as a tool of blackmail,” Moldova’s prime minister, Natalia Gavrilita, told PRO-TV television Wednesday. Moldova’s infrastructure minister, Andre Spuni, tweeted that Russian missile strikes on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure have caused Moldova to lose half of its power.

In the past, Gazprom has used minor charges as pretexts for major cuts in gas deliveries to the European Union. In response to the Gazprom threat, the European gas benchmark jumped more than 8 per cent Tuesday. This fall, the EU has received about 43 million cubic meters of gas daily through this pipeline.

Inside Ukraine, Mr. Zelensky said local officials are setting up over 4,000  “invincibility centers” around Ukraine to provide electricity, heat, water, internet, mobile phone connections and a pharmacy, free of charge and around the clock. At present, blackouts vary between four hours and 12 hours. Power executives predict that blackouts will continue through March.

To get through the winter, Ukraine is appealing for transformers, power equipment and anti-aircraft defense systems. On Wednesday, Britain’s Defense Ministry said there had been no reports in a week of Russia using Iranian attack drones. The Ministry said Moscow might be running out of the drones and would try to buy more from Iran.

Last week, Defense Secretary Austin said Russia’s missile strikes on Ukraine’s power system have “little or no military purpose,” and constitute a war crime. He warned: “With the onset of winter, families will be without power, and more importantly, without heat.”

On Wednesday, Pope Francis compared the misery of Ukrainians today to the “terrible genocide” of the 1930s, when Soviet leader Josef Stalin inflicted famine on the country. “This Saturday marks the anniversary of the terrible genocide of the Holodomor, the extermination by famine of 1932-33 that was artificially caused by Stalin,” he said. “Let us pray for the victims of this genocide and let us pray for so many Ukrainians – children, women, elderly – who are today suffering the martyrdom of aggression.”

During this Thanksgiving and holiday season, charities are helping Ukrainians get through the winter. Three friends of mine in Ukraine have switched gears and are running aid organizations:

An Odesa port owner, Andriy Stavnitser, runs Help Center Ukraine. Their warehouse in New Jersey collects heaters, generators, sleeping bags, and medical supplies for shipment to their collection center in Lublin, Poland. From there, aid goods are trucked across Ukraine.

The former Economy Minister, and now president of the Kyiv School of Economics, Timofiy Mylovanov, is raising $2 million to build bomb shelters for schools. Schools without bomb shelters are not allowed to open. A shelter in a village school can cost $10,000. Donations are tax deductible for US citizens. 

The School pairs donors with schools so American and Ukrainian children can become pen pals. “We have finished one school, and have 85 more in the pipeline,” Mr. Mylovanov said Tuesday by telephone from Kyiv. “There are about 3,000 schools in Ukraine that need shelters. The need is great.”

A Colorado native, retired US Marine Corps Reserve Colonel, and president of a leading Kyiv ad agency, Andrew Bain, leads the Ukrainian Freedom Fund, a Wyoming-based non-profit group. Their “Warm Up Ukraine” campaign is buying hats, gloves, jackets, socks, boots, thermal underwear, Gore-Tex, multi-layer sleep systems, furnaces, and generators. 

“The only thing more miserable than being stuck under artillery fire is being stuck under artillery fire under freezing rain,” Colonel Bain said from Kyiv about the aid, which goes to Ukraine’s front line soldiers.

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