October is a cold month in Europe. Trees lose their leaves to Autumn. Squirrels stock nuts in hollows. And humans don anoraks as the ambient temperature starts to dip to freezing point.
It just got a lot colder in Ukraine on 10 October, after a blistering Russian missile strike hit a number of non-nuclear power stations and distribution substations in over a dozen Ukrainian cities, including the capital, Kiev.
And with that, water supply to many parts also ceased.
Also on the target list were key military command and communication centres in Kiev. The German Embassy’s windows were blown out by the shockwaves of an explosion in the vicinity, and the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkov is without electricity at present.
This Russian escalation was not unexpected, after a suicide bomber blew a truck up on the landmark Crimean Bridge on 8 October. It caused some damage and forced a temporarily suspension of traffic, but the attack was more symbolic than strategic.
It also announced the arrival of a new Russian commander on the battlefield, General Sergey Surovikin, and ended months of an indecisive, attritive pushmipullyu lull on the frontlines.
The implications are numerous.
First, with this missile attack, the West’s proxy war has suffered a significant setback. For months, they had fed and fuelled their regime in Kiev with narratives, armaments, military advisors, and real-time intelligence.
Most of that has come to naught, now that the Ukrainian energy infrastructure has been crippled.
Second, the Ukrainian air defence systems have been shown up to be ineffective and non-existent for all practical purposes. The Ukrainian Air Force, too, has apparently ceased to exist.
This is a far cry from the chest-thumping of the conflict’s early days in February, when an urban legend was sought to be created around an alleged ‘Ghost of Kiev’ – an ace Ukrainian fighter pilot who was shooting Russian jets out of the sky at will.
It is also a bloody nose to many vaunted air defence systems which were shipped to Ukraine from America and other countries last month. The suppliers’ boast was that these state-of-the-art systems could intercept even Russian Iskander missiles.
Well, the proof of the pudding is that dozens of Ukrainian power stations, substations, and main command centres are smouldering ruins, while most of the country’s electricity grid has been knocked out.
Third, Ukrainian trains have had to shift from electricity to diesel. This raises the burden of securing, stocking and supplying fuel, while reducing the volumes available to the Ukrainian military. They can either run trains or tanks, but not both at full capacity now.
Fourth, the missile strikes were followed by an announcement from Belarus, that they would now formally join hands with Russia to enter the conflict – albeit in a defensive capacity at present.
This means that Moscow can open a brand-new front, in the north, barely a hundred kilometres from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, at a time and scale of its choosing.
Fifth, Ukrainian electricity exports to eastern Europe have stopped. The daily revenue loss to Kiev is in the range of 8-11 million Euros a day.
Ironically, these exports were initiated in July 2022 by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy with great fanfare, and touted as a mark of valiant cooperation to achieving energy security even under extreme duress.
Well, purchasing countries like Poland and Romania will now have to scrabble around feverishly for alternate sources, exactly when the cold weather season is upon them.
Sixth, the missile strikes were accompanied by a curious ‘power outage’ in the Baltic region, when the undersea power cable from Sweden to Denmark’s Bornholm Island was cut.
The line appears to have been restored, but it gave quite a scare to Europe’s power grid, which is already reeling from a severe inability to meet demand.
Seventh, these strikes put an end to a fairly puerile narrative which sprang up during the summer, that the Russians were on the backfoot. Whatever minor, local gains the Ukrainians may have crowed about in the Donbass this past month have been comprehensively negated by Russia.
Hopefully, now, commentators will learn to distinguish between tactical withdrawals and the true meaning of Russian restraint, because one more such attack will spell doom for the Ukrainian electricity grid.
Similarly, time has come for western governments to finally, and grudgingly, admit that the Russians can’t be beaten.
Eighth, this attack has to now be taken as a warning by those powers who are pulling the strings in Kiev. Not one nuclear power plant or hydroelectrical project has been hit.
In fact, the focus has been more on distribution substations which can be repaired in quick time. The Russians are effectively asking the West to stop promoting this truly senseless conflict, failing which, the people of Ukraine will be subjected to further hardship and suffering.
However, the message does not appear to have reached intended ears yet, because, rather than urging a truce, American president Joe Biden spoke with his Ukrainian counterpart, Zelenskyy, and promised to send more advanced air defence systems to Kiev. The flames are being fanned exactly when they should be doused.
Nonetheless, the tide of popular opinion is slowly changing in Europe. Russia’s gas giant, Gazprom, restarted gas supplies to Italy a few days ago after a brief disruption; pertinently, this follows a landmark election in which Italy voted in a new government that views the ongoing crisis with great disfavour.
And Russia Today ran visuals of a crowd in Rome, holding placards which read: “We love Gazprom. Yankee go home.”
The bottom line is that Russia has now raised the stakes, given Zelenskyy and the West a taste of what Moscow is capable of, warned of the destruction that will follow if this proxy conflict is not ended soon, and set the stage for a fresh ground attack.
If this does not bring Kiev and its backers to the negotiating table, perhaps nothing will, and the price of such meaningless obduracy will be paid by the innocents of Ukraine and Europe.
Also Read: The British Energy Crisis – No End In Sight
Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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