Vladimir Putin’s plot to freeze Ukraine into submission looks destined to fail

National flags of Ukraine are seen hanging above shops following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in London

Ukraine’s flag in London: a symbol of a country – but also of a common cause CREDIT: Toby Melville/Reuters

COMMENT

Vladimir Putin’s plot to freeze Ukraine into submission looks destined to fail

It may well spark another exodus of refugees, but the West has shown an amazing capacity to absorb them

Fraser Nelson

24 November 2022 • 9:00pm

For the past 38 years, The Spectator has given a “Parliamentarian of the Year” award to some of the most influential figures in modern politics. They have, of course, all been British but we made an exception this year for a politician who has become an inspiration for democrats worldwide. Volodymyr Zelensky is quite an Anglophile, and was keen to address our ceremony via a live videolink. This was his plan until the last minute – but Russian missiles had hit, leading to the first nationwide power outage. The first, no doubt, of many.

This is now Putin’s winter strategy. His army is losing to Ukraine’s forces, having been forced from just over half of the land occupied since February. So Moscow is switching to a strategy that targets civilians by firing missiles at the power generators, thereby denying not just electricity but running water and sewage facilities. In a country where temperatures will drop to minus 25 in the coming weeks it will, in Zelensky’s words, “turn the cold of winter into a weapon of mass destruction”.

The obvious aim is sap morale and force Ukraine to negotiate – but so far, it’s having quite the reverse effect. As far as opinion polls can ascertain, Ukrainian public opinion is to keep fighting until every inch of Ukrainian territory is reclaimed – Crimea very much included. If Zelensky were to negotiate a deal, there’s a good chance he’d be deposed by a country whose people kicked out a president in the 2014 Maidan revolution. Ukrainians’ determination to see the winter through is, it seems, absolute. But this may very well mean evacuating chunks of the country and perhaps creating a second wave of refugees.

Putin has long pinned his hopes on the winter to hurt both Ukraine and her Western allies. Turning off Russia’s gas exports was intended to send energy prices soaring, especially in Germany, which had become dependent on Moscow’s imports and had no Plan B. “Better a cold shower than Putin’s gas,” read the placards from German protesters in February – but when the time came, would they be willing to make the trade?

Since then, Germany has made near-miraculous progress in finding other energy sources and floating terminals to import liquefied natural gas (LNG). The first gas ship “Neptune”, big enough to supply two million households, reached the island of Rügen on Wednesday. Several more such ships are on the way. When Germany said it wanted its national gas storage 95 per cent full by November, it looked a laughably optimistic target. But it was achieved three weeks early. Its reserves, now, are 99 per cent full.

Rather than a gas shortage, Europe now has LNG ships loitering around Gibraltar without enough storage capacity for them to unload. Wholesale gas prices are less than half their recent peak and, crucially, prices next year now look to be about half what was feared in August. The UK energy price bailout – whose expected £10 billion-a-month cost helped sink Liz Truss’s government – may never have been needed, certainly not to the same extent. Europe faces a very tough winter. But, now, an endurable one.

Markets have done their work, helped by a warm November. Price signals dampened demand and increased supply – in ways economists did not expect. Wholesale food prices are now falling, raising hopes of inflation falling fast next year. In several important regards, Putin’s Cold War strategy looks set to fail in Western Europe. The question is how much damage he may inflict in Ukraine.

For the past few weeks, Ukraine has grown adept at repairing the missile damage, so power plants can get up and running – limiting outages to just two or three days. But then, missiles strike again. Most are intercepted but Ukraine’s air defence is not complete, and Moscow is getting better at finding weak spots and cheap Iranian drones are enabling Russian attacks to break through by sheer force of numbers. This bomb-and-repair strategy could keep being played all winter. So rather than just have a few days of outages, it’s plausible Ukrainians go for weeks, or months, without power or water.

Life in Kyiv may be made more bearable by about 1,000 “heating points”, which Zelensky calls “points of invincibility”. But areas near the frontline – southern Kherson and Mykolaiv – are already being evacuated as they are impossible to protect. It’s unlikely to be enough. Maxim Timchenko, who runs Ukraine’s largest private energy company, has suggested people consider leaving the country. “If they can find an alternative place to stay for another three or four months, it will be very helpful to the system.”

Out of 43 million Ukranians, eight million have left since the February invasion – and the official government advice for them is to stay away, at least while blackouts continue. Russian attacks are also shutting down power in neighbouring Moldova, where the richest concentration of Ukrainian refugees is to be found. This has the potential for another significant crisis – all told, we may be about to see another vast movement of humanity.

But there is plenty of reason, this time, for hope. Europe has shown an incredible capacity to absorb Ukrainian refugees: Poland, a country that had been suspicious of asylum seekers, has taken a million. Some 145,000 have been welcomed in Britain, with 200,000 visas issued in all. Today’s migration figures were astonishing, in part, because no one had quite worked out that almost 76,000 Hong Kong Chinese had taken advantage of Dominic Raab and Priti Patel’s offer. They, too, have been absorbed with no drama and hardly any commentary.

The Ukrainian “host family” system had its problems – especially when the six-month stay period ran out. But there are few stories of resentment. On the contrary, a new symbol has popped up over much of the country – blue-and-yellow flags which fly from churches, pubs and houses across Britain. A symbol of a country – but also of a common cause and purpose. It’s a recognition that, once again, a fight is on for democracy and that it is, in a very real sense, a shared battle.

At every stage in this war, Putin has sought to persuade Ukraine and its allies that his army cannot be dislodged – so fighting is pointless. But after Russia’s defeat in Kherson, it’s a far harder argument to make. Ukraine’s population is now about to enter perhaps the toughest part of the war – but with the belief that this winter, for all its privations, will mark the beginning of the end.

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