„This upcoming winter could be very ugly due to the strikes on Ukrainian critical infrastructure, instability of energy supplies in Europe and high prices rising tension in the society. This winter is likely the most difficult winter for Ukraine, Moldova, and EU – from various perspectives. But this winter is also the beginning of reversing the Russian energy blackmail. It is the most important winter for the independence of Europe from Russia, the beginning of the end of Russia’s energy driven subversions and a new chance to have energy supplies without strings attached…”
The Russian aggression against Ukraine was already labeled as the worst war in Europe since the Second World War. Tens of thousands of dead, injured and people without a shelter are only the consequences which are on the surface. Almost half of the population of Ukraine are either refuges in Europe or IDPs in Ukraine. Some areas directly affected by the war are fully destroyed and it is not clear how long it will take until these could be reconstructed.
But the nature of war changed in the last month. If before, the areas of Ukraine which were not directly affected by the war were considered a relatively safe place, now this is all gone. The Russian attacks on the critical infrastructure in Ukraine, combined with Kremlin’s withdrawal from the grain deal, are expanding the war on the entire Ukraine and beyond. The long pursued Russian strategy of “famine and cold” (golod i holod) is now applied in full swing in order to get Ukraine at the negotiations table, which would allow Russia to “stabilize” the occupied areas and prepare for a new phase of the war.
The energy, alongside with military, is now arguably the most powerful weapon of Russia. Its military, despite having more manpower and weapons, has not been able to make any significant gains for the last couple of months. On the contrary, Ukrainian army liberated significant parts of its territory in the east of Kharkiv and the south towards Kherson. This is precisely why the energy, the most important source of income for Russia, is being sacrificed and used exclusively as a weapon.
Ukraine’s critical infrastructure is heavily affected by the Russian strikes. These are meant to make Ukraine care more about the electricity, water and heating than about the war and also stir protest in Ukraine that would eventually lead to demands for a peace deal with the aggressor. However, the Russians are guided too much by the desire to keep Putin and his regime in power rather than studying the impact of their strikes on the war. They keep disregarding the fact that Ukrainians are fighting so well not because they hate what is in front of them, but because they love what is behind them. Therefore, the Russian attacks on critical infrastructure, despite the drop in living standards, are mobilizing even more the Ukrainian society. The same happens to the international community which supports even more Ukraine. Modern air defense systems have already been delivered by Germany and United States, while some other states as Spain, Italy and France are doing the same. The bottom line is: Western support becomes more consistent as Russia increases its war in Ukraine.
Russia targeted Europe’s energy system by reducing its supplies despite the commitments. Kremlin’s actions aim to weaken the governments of EU countries, causing protest and dissatisfaction that shall in the end lead to the demands from the population to decrease their support for Ukraine, but also ease sanctions against Russia. Although some of the EU states lost a lot of time in the past years by heavily relying on Russia, it appears that these states are increasingly aware and become more agile in pushing back on the Russian hybrid war in Europe. In a nutshell, Kremlin realized that it is not able to win the war in Ukraine and that is why it wants to win the war in Europe. Winning the war in Europe means also winning the war in Ukraine, as the European partners would not be able to continue supplying Ukraine with military assistance. The prospect of winning against Ukraine by winning in Europe does not pay-off. Although EU states are struggling with the rising of prices and inflation due to expansive energy resources, the commitment to support Ukraine is firm and increasing. This means that Russian energy as a weapon could create some damage, but is not decisive in taking decisions for the governments in Europe. Therefore, Putin’s idea that Europe cannot go through the winter without the Russian energy is by far an overestimation.
However, the country, which is the most vulnerable to Russian energy trap, is Moldova. Chisinau lost many years in discussing options for the future energy diversification while doing little to decrease the full reliance on Russian supplies, both in terms of gas, oil, and electricity. The previous winter already showed quite clear that Russia is going to use its energy monopoly for weakening the pro-reform government in Chisinau. This year it appears that the winter is set to become even more challenging with Russia which is reducing the volumes of gas to which it has committed. Consequently, the electricity producer operated by Russia in the uncontrolled territory of Transnistria has also significantly reduced the energy supply to Moldova. This in turn will cause a serious problem for the breakaway region, who’s main part of income is made from selling energy to Moldova.
Lessons have been learned and despite many years that have been lost, the Moldovan leadership is de-weaponizing Russian energy in Moldova. Above all, Moldova became part, together with Ukraine and just before the war, of the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E), which ensures security of the interconnected power systems at the European level. This is precisely how Moldova is importing the energy from Romania these days during the shortage to avoid blackouts. One thing Moldova also did with a credit from the EBRD is making a gas reserve deposited in Romania and Ukraine, which today is already 100 mln m3 that would basically give Moldova few weeks to arrange its alternative supplies in case of cutting fully the gas. For this, Moldova established an electricity and gas wholesaler that is operating as a backup supplier. Needless to say, Moldovan authorities and population decreased its consumption of electricity and gas following the call of the Moldovan leadership.
The Russian-managed opposition of the fugitive Ilan Shor tried to propel protests and create social unrest by using the pretext of high gas and electricity prices. However, the compensations provided by the government combined with the information of why Moldova is suffering energy shortage have made the protests unappealing. Most of the protesters, if not all, seem to receive a fee for their participation and are not moved by the idea to overturn the government. Moreover, the recent designation of Ilan Shor by the United States as being responsible for overt and covert actions to return Moldova under the influence of Russia shows how the typical Russian playbook is employed in Moldova though its agents.
We are witnessing a process when the Russian energy as a weapon likely reached its pinnacle. Ukraine fights the most brutal Russian war, which is difficult to imagine in Europe, in 21st century. But winning against the hybrid war with Russian energy is also very important. The ability of Europe to function without relying on the Russian energy supplies is part of the success of the victory against Kremlin. As it is the Moldova’s stability as a predictable state that is able to diversify its supplies.
This upcoming winter could be very ugly due to the strikes on Ukrainian critical infrastructure, instability of energy supplies in Europe and high prices rising tension in the society. This winter is likely the most difficult winter for Ukraine, Moldova, and EU – from various perspectives. But this winter is also the beginning of reversing the Russian energy blackmail. It is the most important winter for the independence of Europe from Russia, the beginning of the end of Russia’s energy driven subversions and a new chance to have energy supplies without strings attached.
Leo Litra is a Senior Research Fellow at the New Europe Centre (Kyiv).
This Op-Ed is published within the project “Increasing the level of information and understanding of security and defense issues of the Republic of Moldova”, implemented by the Institute for European Policies and Reforms (IPRE) and Friedrich Ebert Foundation Moldova, in partnership with Zonadesecuritate.md and Zugo.md media platforms.