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Winter historically protected Russia. Now it's a form of attack

People fleeing Ukraine in the snow, October 2022.
People fleeing Ukraine in the snow, October 2022.

Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was famously stopped in its tracks, in the winter of 1812, not only by tactics or a resistant army but by the weather. During World War II, when Hitler found himself battling on two fronts—with the UK, US and other forces in the west, and with Russia in the east—it was the impossibility of fighting through the winter that contributed to his final defeat.

Now, according to Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO, Vladimir Putin is reversing things: Using the forthcoming winter against Ukraine as a “weapon of war.”

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Ukraine lies in a part of the world that regularly experiences sub-zero temperatures through the winter months; the average temperature in Kyiv in January ranges between -1 and -7 °C (30-19 °F). As a result, amenities like gas and electricity are even more essential than elsewhere or at other times. It’s exactly this infrastructure that the Russian army is targeting as its invasion of neighbouring Ukraine enters its tenth month. Since October, Russian attacks have wrecked or destroyed more than 40% of Ukraine’s power plants, pipelines, and transmission infrastructure.

Russia is weaponizing winter

“What we have seen since President Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is that President Putin is failing in Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said yesterday (Nov. 28) at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Bucharest, Romania. “He is responding with more brutality, attacking gas infrastructure, power lines, and trying to deprive the Ukrainians of water, electricity, light, and heating.”

“Therefore we need to support Ukraine, because what we see is that President Putin is trying to use winter as a weapon of war, which is inflicting a lot of suffering on the Ukrainian people,” Stoltenberg said.

Snow has begun falling in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, which before the war had a population of 2.8 million. Before the war, Ukraine met about 65% of its energy demands via a mix of domestic fossil fuel production and nuclear, according to the International Energy Association; for the rest, it imported fossil fuels, primarily from Belarus,

The Ukrainian energy company Naftogaz has asked the US for aid, Reuters reported. (In October, USAID had already committed to spending $55 million on Ukraine’s heating infrastructure.) In November, the UK also announced specific aid for Ukraine’s energy system, including a $50 million guarantee for the state power utility. Ukraine’s prosecutor-general Andriy Kostin told the BBC this week that such attacks, during winter, amount to attempted “genocide.”

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