Since October 2022, the Russian military has regularly launched waves of missiles and drones strikes on the Ukrainian energy infrastructures. (Greg Myre, “Russia strikes, Ukraine repairs, in a battle to survive the winter”, NPR, 25 November 2022).
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As a result, millions of Ukrainians have to spend the winter without light, heat or running water. Meanwhile, the interplay of U.S. and European sanctions against Russian oil imports and the drastically diminished Russian gas exports to Europe are exposing European countries to winter cold (“Russian oil exports dip 4% in Sep. ahead of EU sanctions – IEA”, Reuters, 13 October, 2022).
The timing of the Russian strikes turns the Winter season into a (Russian) weapon of massive destabilization in Ukraine and Europe. In other words, the Kremlin redefines the military use of winter that is historically inscribed in the Russian strategic culture (Dominic Lieven, Russia against Napoleon, 2009).
As we shall see, this seasonal medium is nothing but the intentional transformation of an entire season into a projection of force outside of Russia in an era of climatic change. This is a major improvement on the Russian strategic history, dominated by the use of winter to weaken invaders (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Warming Arctic, a Hyper Strategic Crisis”, The Red Team Analysis, 20 January, 2014).
This strategic evolution also reveals itself through the massive reduction of gas exports from Russia towards Germany and the rest of Europe since May 2022.
In effect, from the start of the “gas bridge” between Russia and European countries at the start of the 1960s and until 2022, Russian gas has been used to heat cities and homes, while powering industries all over eastern and western Europe. Thus, the drastic reduction of the gaz exports by Gazprom deprives people and economies of energy at the very scale of the Russia-Europe gaz relationship (Thane Gustafsson, The Bridge – Natural gas in a redevided Europe, Harvard, 2020).
As we shall show, the weaponization of the 2022-23 winter is not the “usual” defensive way Russian strategists and tacticians take advantage from freezing conditions while defending the Russian heartland from invasion, that they know and understand better than their opponents. It is something else: an offensive weather force projection upon Ukraine and the European continent.
Winter as “force projection”
As it happens, what is at stake in 2022 is a literal “projection” of winter inside the very energy, economic and living conditions of their opponents. In other terms, the Russian strategists are literally weaponizing winter, in order to destabilize the intimate equilibria and complex relations existing between energy parameters, national security and economy and the very intimacy and wellbeing of entire societies (Sam Mednick, “Kyiv prepares for a winter with no heat, water or power”, AP, 6 November 2022).
As it happens the Russian “projection of winter” aims at weakening both Ukrainian society and its European and American backers, through the weakening of their ability to protect themselves from the cold (Nina Chestney and Bozorghmer Sharafedin, “Analysis- Russian gas supply cap casts chill in Europe as winter nears”, Reuters, October 11, 2022).
One must add that this strategy may know involuntarily “enhancement” resulting from the effects of climate change. Indeed, the current planetary crisis has the potential to turn seasonal weather events into abnormal extreme events. (Mark Lynas, Our Last Warning: 6 Degrees of Climate Emergency, 2020,).
However, we must understand this situation in its context, composed of the convergence of the basics of the Russian strategy and of the massive chains of impacts of climate change, especially on the Gulf Stream evolution (IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, Impact, Adaptation, Vulnerability, 2022).
Economic degrowth and risk growth
This military use of a season is made possible through a timely use of its arsenal against Ukraine and by the strategically timed diminished gas exports to Europe, that follow international sanctions. This “degrowth” of the Russian gas exports took massively place between June and September 2022.
It follows the first spring exports’ decreases, triggered by the Kremlin’s demand that gas exports were paid in rubles. Thus the end of summer is also the start of a gas crisis that prolong itself during fall and winter (Chestney and Sharafedin, ibid).
In November 22, the different European gaz companies and government had had time to refill their national reserves. However, the question remains to know if those reserves will be sufficient in the face of a harsh winter, and if imports will offset the risk of competition between European nations (Elena Mazneva, “European gas gains as weather risks counter high reserves”, Bloomberg, 6 december 2022).
Winter is coming for Ukraine
During October and November 2022, the Russian military has launched six waves of missiles and Iran Shahed drone strikes. They disrupted or destroyed numerous Ukrainian water and energy infrastructures. Some missiles also impacted urban areas and killed several civilians.
Those strikes of several cities in centre and western Ukraine included Kiev and Lviv (“October-November 2022 nationwide city strikes on Ukraine”, Wikipedia, Max Hunder and JonathanLanday “Ukraine says half its energy system crippeld by Russian attacks, Kyiv could “shutdown”, Reuters, 19 November, 2022).
In the same time, teams of Russian engineers finally cut down the major Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant from the rest of the Ukrainian electric grid (Lilia Rzheutska, “Zaporizhzhia plant no longer connected to Ukraine grid”, DW, 11/07/2022 and Jean-Michel Valantin, “Nuclear Battlefields in Ukraine – Anthropocene wars 2”, The Red Team Analysis, April 25, 2022).
The timing of these attacks corresponds to the beginning of autumn and has not stopped since. It therefore occurs when the cold weather starts and intensifies, approaching zero and then descending into negative temperatures. Thus, the Russian strikes have deprived almost half of Ukrainian cities, buildings and homes of electricity. Citizens loose light, running water, heat and refrigeration (Max Hunder and Tom Balmforth, “Freezing Ukraine gradually restores power after Russian strikes on grid”, Reuters, November 26, 2022).
In other words, the Russian strategy turns Ukrainian housing infrastructures into a nation-wide cold trap through a literal destruction of the protective “heat bubble” that buildings powered and heated by electricity are meant to be, especially during harsh wintertime. And thus, homes cease to be the place of “artificial climate”, which emerged thousands of years ago from the “fireplace”. Instead they become a “cold shelter” (Lewis Mumford, The City in History, its origins, its transformations and its prospects, 1968).
Winter strikes at continental scale
However, Ukraine is not the sole target of this weaponization of winter. This military use of winter may have extremely serious consequences for European countries. It will put economic and social cohesion as well as, as a result, governments legitimacy under pressure.
As we have seen, the interplay of western economic sanctions against Russia and of Russian “counter-sanctions” against the EU translate into a harsh decrease of Russian gas exports towards Europe.
These Russian reactions and their combination with the strange sabotage of unknown origin of the Russo-German Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipe-lines, trigger a massive energy crisis throughout Europe (Joanna Plucinska, “Nord Stream gas “sabotage” – who’s being blamed, and why?”, Reuters, 6 October, 2022).
The missing energy
This crisis is all the more intense and complex that the European national gas and electricity grids, as well as the national economies, are deeply interconnected. As it happens, for example, the loss of Russian gas intervenes while half of the nuclear reactors of the French national utility EDF are down for maintenance or repair (Sonal Patel, “European energy crisis prompts utility take over in Germany, France”, Power, News and technology for the global energy industry, 1 November 2022)
Because of the poor situation of its nuclear sector, France has to import electricity. This reverses EDF’s traditional over-production and foreign sales, especially to Germany and Italy. Thus, the remaining power utilities in Europe have to over-produce, while some countries import via pipe-line and ships American liquid natural gas (LNG).
This translates into a historic inflation of energy, transport, food and health prices, while revealing wildly different situations in Europe.
For example, facing decreasing Russian gaz flows since spring, going from 32 million cubic meters / day to 21 million cubic meters / day, Italy and giant energy utility ENI authorities looked for alternatives, new suppliers and energy economies as soon as June 2022 (Sofiane louacheni, “Italy prepares for a gas shortage”, Energy News, 14 July 2022). However, the inflationary prices in Italy also “heated” social tensions, translating into “energy bill demonstrations” in September (“Italian retailers put their energy bills on display as they fight for survival”, AA Anadolu Agency, 12/09/2022).
The European governments, as well as the EU Commission, sollicitated other countries, such as Algiers, Qatar, Azerbaidjan (Giovanni Sgaravatti, Simonetta Tagliapietra, Cecilia Trasi, “National energy policy responses to the energy crisis”, Bruegel, 11 november 2022 and Eldar Mamedov, “Azerbaidjan and the EU faltering gas realpolitik”, Responsible Statecraft, 21 July 2022).
The continental interconnectivity of the European massive energy crisis becomes the vector of a networked projection of the vulnerability to winter cold at all scales in the same time. It is going to be felt from rural homes to entire megapolis. Winter is not only coming. The Kremlin is literally projecting it in the offices, while severely degrading work conditions and service and production activities in industry and transportation sectors as well as in the “warm climate bubble” of individuals, societies and nations created by interior heating .
So, the latter will be sensibly less protected from it, despite the levels of development they have reached since 1945.
This dire situation is all the more possible that there is a major threat of electricity and heat supply rupture when the demand peaks, i.e. in January, at the heart of winter (Alec Blackburn, “Europe pins hopes on mild winter to avoid worse energy crisis in 2023”, S&P Global Intelligence, 17 November, 2022).
The Russian strategic culture and winter as a weapon of mass disruption
In that regard, this intrumentalization of winter through the destruction of the Ukrainian power grid and the vulnerabilization of the national and European power production appears as an extension of the fundamentals of the Russian strategy.
The Russian angle
Starting in the 1920s, then during World War II and the Cold War, the Russian defence ministry has developed strategic concepts that integrate military means with other ones, such as economic ones. This integrated framework defines the Russian “operative strategy” (“Transformation in Russian and Soviet military History, Proceedings of the Twelfth military Symposium“, USAF Academy, 1986 and David Glantz, Soviet Military operational Art: in pursuit of deep battle – Military theory and practice, 2012 ).
War is a competition not only between armies, but between the economic, industrial and political national systems behind these armies. The goal is to dramatically degrade the economic, political and social cohesion of the opposite system by fragmenting it.
The aim of this fragmentation is to deeply disrupt the connections between the different systems and institutions necessary to a state to wage a war. As a result, the enemy state becomes materially and politically incapable to perpetuate the war effort.
In this perspective, the use of military forces is to fragment the enemy forces and territory (Stephen Covington, The culture of strategic thought behind Russia’s approaches to warfare, Belfer Center – Harvard University, 2016). The Russian strategy also uses other kinds of forces to disorganize the economic depth of the adversary, while fragmenting the economic and social apparatus upon which it depends. The goal is to degrade the enemy’s fighting means as well as its political fighting will.
Indeed, the recent report Russian military strategy: core tenets and operational concepts highlights the fluidity between defense and offense in an operative strategy perspective (Michael Kofman et al., Russian military strategy: core tenets and operational concepts, CNA, 2021). It also highlights that:
“The theory of victory [of the Russian strategy] is premised on degrading the military-economic potential of opponents, focusing on critically important objects, to affect the ability and will of an adversary to sustain a fight, as opposed to ground offensives to seize territory or key terrain.
The calculus is that the center of gravity lies in degrading a state’s military and economic potential, not seizing territory”.Russian military strategy: core tenets and operational concepts in Michael Kofman et al., Russian military strategy: core tenets and operational concepts, CNA, 2021
War by other means
If we use that framework, the Kremlin’s weaponization of winter in Europe becomes a new dimension of the Russian strategic fundamentals. Its goal is to disrupt the depths of the national social and economic systems’ cohesion that underpin the European support to Ukraine, as well as the Ukrainian political will to fight. This supports Hélène Lavoix’s hypothesis in “An Alternative Red Scenario for the War Between Ukraine and Russia”(The Red Team Analysis Society, September 19, 2022).
We must also keep in mind that this strategy is also disrupting and threatening the economic and political cohesion of NATO and, as a result, of the U.S. efforts in favour of Ukraine. In other terms, the winter’s cold becomes a weapon of “mass destabilization” in a time of energy crisis (Mark Galeotti, The weaponization of everything, a field guide to the new way of war, Yale University Press, 2022).
Europe in dire straits
This destabilization may become a chronic feature of the European political landscape during 2022-2023. It will work through the combination of the invasion of the interior of cities and habitats with the atmospheric cold, as well as with inflation and energy, food and health insecurity.
The middle or low income families with young children and elderlies will be especially sensitive to the thermic situation. Being the majority of the population, they are particularly at risk of feeling that the social contract between them and the governments and institutions is under strain, if not broken (Michael Lind, The New Class War, Saving democracy from the metropolitan elite, Atlantic Books, 2020).
This will put European governments in very difficult postures. Indeed, they will have to manage recessionary and social crises, even possibly insurrectional situations, while supporting Ukraine and NATO’s effort (Tyler Durden, “Germany preparing for emergency cash deliveries, bank runs, and “aggressive discontent”, ahead of winter power cuts”, Zerohedge, November 17, 2022, “UK Gov’t “War gamed” emergency plans for multi day power black-outs ; leaked docs reveal”, Zerohedge, November 3, 2022).
Indeed, the Russian “offensive by winter” may exact a significant toll in lives, because of the vulnerability of populations to the cold. According to a scenario by The Economist, this toll, outside Ukraine, could go from a 32.000 excess death in a mild winter to as high as 335.000 extra lives in the case of a harsh winter (“Russia is using energy as a weapon – how deadly will it be?”, The Economist, 26 November, 2022).
In this context, the European Union will certainly have to endure very dangerous endogenous pressures (Silvia Amaro, “Europe’s real energy crisis will come next winter – but it won’t last forever”, CNBC, 27 November 2022, Jorge Libeiriro “Energy crisis: EU countries still split by “different views” on gas cap”, 25 October 2022 and Adam Tooze, “The European project is now at the mercy of the weather”, Foreign Policy, 2 November 2022).
Strategic meaning of the weaponization of winter
Furthermore, weaponizing winter also means instrumentalizing the effects of climate change upon seasonal as well as weather changes. Indeed, because of climate change, the thermic radiant of seasons becomes increasingly irregular. For example, the current trend of the evolution of cold temperatures see them happening later in the winter season than thirty years ago (Jacob Dykes, “As the world warms, seasons are shifting”, Geographical, 7 May, 2021).
However, if this seems like good news in the face of the strategic use of winter, one must keep in mind that weather events are leaving their normal intensity envelop. Because of climate change, they tend to go to the extremes (David Wallace Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth, Life after Warming, 2019).
For example, the disorganization of the Arctic jet stream induces arctic air breaks. Those have the potential to cross entire continental regions. Those “polar vortex” immerge regions adapted to mild oceanic weather or to harsher continental weather to extreme thermic situations that inflict heavy damages. It was the case, for example, in Texas in January 2021 (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Losing Texas to Climate Change and Covid 19 ?”, The Red Team Analysis Society, March 16, 2021).
Cold winds as bombing
This danger is accentuated by the current slowdown of the Gulf Stream. This Atlantic ocean current vehicles heat in less regular way, thus entailing a greater European vulnerability to cold winters.
From a strategic point of view, this means that the Kremlin is potentially leading a revolution in geopolitical and military affairs. It does so by further developing the weaponization of a season. As it happens, as we have seen since our first research with The Red Team Analysis Society, climate change inflicts systems of impacts that have the characteristics and the consequences of a global “hyper siege”’ (Jean-Michel Valantin “Hyper Siege: Climate change versus U.S National security”,The Red Team Analysis Society , March 31 2014).
Here, as the Kremlin weakens or even destroys the thermic defense systems against cold that power utilities and grid are, the hyper siege is turned by the Russian strategy into a “hyper assault”. And the assault has begun.
This means that, potentially, “climate strategies” are emerging and become new dimensions of the management of the current and certainly coming conflicts of a multipolar world on a changing planet.