Cold as a Weapon in the Ukrainian War

The cold became a weapon in the Ukrainian war and a bet by Russian President Vladimir Putin to weaken Ukrainians and the willingness of European countries to stand up to Moscow. With winter approaching and temperatures plummeting, Ukrainians can already feel the sub-zero cold without heating in their bones even before the arrival of winter that will be brutal with poor or non-existent heating in a country with entire cities in ruins.

Ukrainian weather is extremely cold in winter with frequent episodes of snow and temperatures well below freezing that have already punished Ukrainians fleeing the war in the first weeks of the conflict | LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/METSUL METEOROLOGIA

As a tactic to carry out the objective of freezing the Ukrainians, Russia has been bombing Ukraine’s power plants in recent days, using Iranian-made kamikaze drones. Russian attacks hit the capital Kiev and several other Ukrainian cities that targeted power plants. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on social media that the Russian attacks shut down 30% of power substations, causing “massive blackouts across the country”.

As the freeze sets in, those who have not fled the intense fighting, regular bombing and months of Russian occupation of eastern Ukraine are desperately trying to figure out how to weather the cold months. In the village of Kurylivka, a resident pushes a wheelbarrow full of freshly cut logs down the road towards his house.

He says that he gathered enough wood to last the entire winter. Still, he plans to start sleeping next to a woodstove in a rickety outhouse rather than in his house, as all the windows in his house have been blown up by shrapnel caused by Russian bomb blasts.

Authorities are working to gradually restore electricity to the area in the coming days, and repairs to the water and gas infrastructure will follow, according to Roman Semenukha, deputy for the Kharkiv regional government. Authorities are working to provide residents with firewood, he added, but do not have a timeline for when services will be restored.

Authorities in the Ukrainian-controlled areas of the hotly disputed neighboring Donetsk region urged all remaining residents to evacuate and warned that gas and water services in many areas are unlikely to be restored until winter. Like in the Kharkiv region, where thousands of homes were destroyed by Russian attacks, with damaged roofs and blown out windows that are unable to provide protection from the cold weather and snow.

Warming problems affect other regions of Ukraine far from the war front in the south and east of the country. Russia has intensified its bombing campaign by targeting civilian energy across Ukrainian territory and leaving many cities and towns without electricity.

Nina, a 62-year-old Ukrainian, fries potato pies in a makeshift wood-fired oven near the entrance to a basement used as a bomb shelter in a residential building where she lives in the city of Siversk, Donetsk Oblast, amid Russia’s military invasion launched in Ukraine | GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/METSUL METEOROLOGY

Local resident Lesya prepares a hot meal on a wood stove in a courtyard of a multi-story residential building in the village of Gostomel, near Kyiv, amid Russia’s military invasion launched on Ukraine | GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/METSUL METEOROLOGY

With so many cities in the region destroyed and without any comfort in their homes in rubble, the quest for survival outweighs any concern for preserving what once was. Without light and water, the houses have become rudimentary shelters like in the medieval era, where residents live by candlelight, get water from wells and bundle up to protect themselves from the cold.

Couple in the snow in the city of Irpin in the first days of the war in March this year. It will be the second winter of military conflict for the Ukrainians after the Russian invasion on February 24. | SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/METSUL METEOROLOGIA

War refugees from Ukraine faced extreme cold at the train station in Przemysl, eastern Poland, near the Ukrainian-Polish border, in the early days of the war in late February and March this year | LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/METSUL METEOROLOGIA

Where the bombs don’t fall, in the rest of Europe, Russia’s strategy is also to use the cold as a weapon, cutting off gas supplies. Governments across Europe strive to avoid energy rationing and winter blackouts, but that will depend in part on something they cannot control: the weather. According to some analysts, Russian President Vladimir Putin could benefit from a cold winter or a long period of low temperatures, after cutting Russian gas exports to Europe in retaliation for sanctions imposed by the European Union (EU) for his invasion of Ukraine.

An icy season like 2010/2011 or a prolonged Arctic cold snap like the “Beast from the East”, which arrived in Western Europe from Siberia in 2018, could cause difficulties and weaken Europeans’ resolve to support Ukraine.

“The energy weapon has a bullet and it just went off,” says Eliot A. Cohen, a security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. “Europeans will face the worst this winter,” he told AFP. Many governments have urged citizens to turn down thermostats and businesses to try to save energy, under EU plans to cut gas consumption by 15% this winter compared to the normal average.

In recent months, European countries have rushed to fill their strategic reserves, buying additional supplies at record prices from Algeria, Qatar, Norway or the United States. European reserves are at nearly 90% of capacity, giving consumers and businesses a margin of safety. “Europe is well positioned to face the winter in normal weather conditions,” Alireza Nahvi, from Wood Mackenzie, told AFP.

European Union Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson of Estonia speaks during a press conference on the ‘Save gas for a safe winter’ package at the bloc’s headquarters in Brussels in July. The European Commission has urged countries to reduce gas demand by 15 percent to secure winter stocks and defeat Russian “blackmail”. | JOHN THYS/AFP/METSUL METEOROLOGY

With so much at stake, weather forecasts have become especially important, with officials looking to the European Center for Medium-Term Weather Forecasts (ECMWF). Its Copernicus Climate Change Service produces quarterly forecasts that assess the likelihood of different weather patterns on the continent, thanks to a supercomputer that gathers data from the national weather services.

“The last few weeks have been very busy for us,” Carlo Buontempo, director of the Copernicus Service, told AFP ahead of the publication of his next forecast, for the period from November to January. “This year, clearly, there is a geopolitical interest in the matter,” he added.

Although it is too early to make accurate predictions about the winter, preliminary indications are that it will, in general, be above average, but with the risk of intense cold waves and early. “When winter comes, what matters is the direction of the wind. If in mid-November to December there are strong east winds and snow across Europe, this will certainly have an impact on gas demand,” explained Buontempo.

On the other hand, after a summer of record temperatures in Europe, the Atlantic Ocean is warmer than usual, which in principle will help to maintain the highest temperature when the wind comes from the west.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) also tested Europe’s ability to withstand the winter without Russian gas. Based on average temperatures and assuming a 9% reduction in gas demand, the agency believes the continent will survive without major complications.

Another important factor will be the level of reserves, since it cannot be accessed in its entirety despite being at 90% of its capacity. The IEA said in a report that a late cold snap in February or March, when pressure is low, would represent “the Achilles heel of European gas safety”. “One episode worth remembering is the ‘Beast of the East’, which has already shown how vulnerable the gas system can be in a cold snap,” says Gergely Molnar, a gas analyst at IEA.

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