Ukraine only has three months to prevent a winter betrayal

Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 17 August 2022. © Richard Kemp

Ukraine is about to enter its time of maximum vulnerability as Russia’s traditional ally, General Winter, arrives on the scene and the Kremlin turns the energy screws on Kyiv’s shivering European backers.

On the battlefield winter will impact both sides as the war goes into deep freeze. Winter tends to favour the defender, better able to find shelter and warmth, while movement by foot and vehicle, a greater necessity for attackers, is impeded by first mud then snow. That might allow the Ukrainian army to hold onto what it’s got now but will prevent it from re-taking any significant part of the vast swathes of territory under Russian domination.

But it is in Europe that winter will have the greatest strategic effect on the war, and Ukraine is more likely to be the loser. As European media increasingly grow bored of a freezing landscape without much fighting to report, the spotlight will be more and more on hardship at home, with the economic crisis intensified by Putin’s conflict biting ever deeper.

While Europeans have been blindly satiating their hunger for cheap Russian energy, for years Putin has been baiting the strategic trap for them to fall into. His funding, disinformation and agents of influence in the environmental movement have increased dependency on Russia, playing a critical role in preventing shale gas exploitation across Europe as well as Germany’s termination of nuclear energy, heavily influenced by green parties that arose from the Moscow-funded anti-nuclear movement in the 1980s. A master of political and economic warfare as well as propaganda, Putin’s objectives were both for Russian economic benefit and to gain political leverage in situations such as this.

Russia reduced gas supplies to Europe by 60% in June. Countries are weighing how to minimise economic damage to their already crippled economies as winter approaches, including by significantly reducing gas consumption among domestic consumers for which one of the few realistic options is an even steeper price hike. The widespread discontent among voters that follows will focus politicians’ minds and force them to reconsider their already wavering commitment to Ukraine and especially the strict sanctions against Russia which have proven not to have the hoped-for effect on restraining Putin’s aggression.

Putin knows how to ratchet up the pressure until European countries succumb, including by ordering a total energy shut-off. With this threat hanging over their heads, he will dangle a ceasefire at the G20 summit in November, saying that peace can come if he holds onto the Donbas, Crimea and the territory he has captured along the south coast of Ukraine. He will speak of self-determination of peoples, citing plebiscites that he will ensure show the majority of the populations in these areas want to be a part of Russia. His appeal will not be aimed at Ukraine but at Europeans whose economic woes would be eased.

This message will be every bit as enticing to President Biden as it will be to his European counterparts. America too is suffering severe economic damage which Biden invariably blames on Putin’s war. His mood is demonstrated in an article last week in the New York Times. While reassuring Russia about the limitations of US military support for Kiev, he wrote: “I will not pressure the Ukrainian government to make any territorial concessions”, the first time a major national leader has raised the prospect of concessions in many months.

Leaders will be tempted to grab at Putin’s offer of peace, withholding support for Zelensky. Until now, an attritional war has been said to favour Ukraine. That’s about to be seriously tested. It may have been built on a false premise in the first place: Russia has usually started wars badly in its history, but has been able to call upon its vast resources and manpower over time. And the Ukrainians are entirely reliant on foreign weapons, equipment and intelligence.