Now Putin is weaponising winter

Published by The i paper (31st October, 2022)

Last night, the sirens began wailing as I walked into a shopping centre. A Russian bomber had been detected flying in our direction. Sales staff pulled down shutters and locked doors as armed men strolled through the building, urging shoppers to head to basements. One hairdresser hastily finished a child’s haircut in a salon. Some folks took cover in the metro.

Outside, streets were dark after the latest power cut, with even some traffic lights out of action. A few people sat around chatting and smoking, waiting for the warning to end. In nearby bars and restaurants, conversations around candle-lit tables scarcely paused before everyone headed home ahead of the curfew.

Another Saturday night in Kyiv. Eight months into this stupid war, Ukrainians try to carry on with life as best they can amid the chaos, carnage and crippled economy. Their fortitude is remarkable to witness, scarcely seeming to waver for all the pain and suffering.

According to a new poll, more than seven in 10 citizens say they are ready to fight if needed. An astonishing 95 per cent trust their armed forces and 80 per cent trust President Volodymyr Zelensky, the former comedian who rose with such unlikely skill to wartime leadership. Even in sock shops and vegan sandwich bars, a slice of profits get donated to the military.

Vladimir Putin’s latest desperate roll of the dice – assisted by his thuggish new commander, Sergei Surovikin, a veteran of their Syrian atrocities – is to target Ukraine’s energy infrastructure ahead of the winter freeze. For the past three weeks, waves of drones and missiles have struck electricity and heating supplies remorselessly. As temperatures fall, this leads to blackouts, water shortages and desperate pleas to limit usage.

The capital, facing a power deficit of roughly half its required supply, has urged citizens to avoid using appliances between 7am and 11pm. At the start of the week, we were warned about rolling four-hour cuts; by Friday, we were told that they would last up to six hours.

Meanwhile, Putin’s bungled invasion has moved to its third stage. First came the initial assault on Kyiv, with plans for rapid regime change and victory parades amid crazy talk of denazification thwarted by heroic resistance. Then the despot claimed to be focusing on Donbas in eastern Ukraine – but the defending nation routed the attackers in the Kharkiv region and started liberating settlements in Luhansk, which the panicked Kremlin had illegally annexed just days earlier.

Now Russia’s forces are pulling back from Kherson as they adopt a more defensive pose ahead of winter – evacuating residents, withdrawing heavy offensive equipment to avoid huge losses seen before, even looting statues and an historic tomb from the city centre.

This is the first time Moscow’s military has staged an orderly withdrawal in this war as Ukraine’s forces slice through the “fresh meat” of reluctantly mobilised men. Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s intelligence chief, told me that they expect to recapture the city next month – and argues that this will be a seismic blow for Russian public opinion, shattering their condescending narrative about Ukraine.

There could be another breakthrough further along the frontline. But Russian forces are building lines of “dragon’s teeth” anti-tank fortifications deep in Luhansk to slow Kyiv’s advance and, intriguingly, even over the border in Belgorod. The billionaire Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Surovikin, has discussed plans for a 200km rampart erected across eastern Ukraine by Wagner, his mercenary group that is often better equipped and more effective than the regular army. Some analysts fear that this could become another “frozen conflict”, with troops dug in along unyielding positions.

For all his spurious claims about Nato threats to Russia, Putin’s war was fuelled by his sociopathic fury at Ukraine’s drive towards democracy. Freedom in a neighbour with such close links challenged his vile regime. So he talks about saving fellow Slavs while first slaughtering them and now trying to freeze them into submission. His officials claim that their strikes on energy – which started on 10 October, as I saw with such devastating impact in Dnipro – are in response to explosions two days earlier on the despot’s beloved road and rail bridge to Crimea.

Yet Budanov, accused of masterminding that raid, told me that Russia’s infrastructure attacks were planned weeks earlier. The Kremlin is weaponising winter in a bid to demoralise people standing strong despite all of the atrocities inflicted on their nation.

The bigger danger lies abroad. Most Western democracies have shown admirable resolve in backing Kyiv’s struggle for survival, despite pathetic complacency in the past over Putin’s dictatorship. There are valid concerns about the risks of nuclear war, although it would be self-defeating to give in to Kremlin blackmail.

We should try to hasten the war’s end with tougher sanctions, more weapons and putting greater pressure on allies such as Israel, India and South Africa standing on the sidelines. Instead, there is fresh muttering about finding a peace deal that would let Russia hold on to some gains, perhaps even restricting support to force Zelensky’s hand.

There are worries in Kyiv over Rishi Sunak’s commitment; hopefully, they prove unjustified given the resolve of his predecessors. Far more alarming is the mood in the US, by far the biggest weapons supplier. The Republicans may win both houses of Congress in the mid-term elections next month but have a significant rump opposed to funding Ukraine as domestic household bills surge; some prominent figures even make daft suggestions that such aid is not in their national interest.

Last week, 30 Democrats, who claim to be progressives, fanned the flames of a fascistic Russian leader’s propaganda by calling for a ceasefire before hurriedly withdrawing their foolish letter. Zelensky has warned his people that they face the toughest winter in their independent history. But if the West’s support thaws, the entire world will feel the chill of this epic war against dictatorship in the future.

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