"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
“In Germany, the ultimate threat—a complete Russian cut-off of gas looks ever more plausible.”
As Europe swelters in record-high temperatures, energy planners are working hard to ensure people can remain warm in the coming winter. With the war in Ukraine showing no signs of resolution after six months, the thinking is that Putin will step up pressure on the West by other means — using energy supplies as leverage.
In response, the West is preparing; gas storage is underway, coal-fired power stations are kept ready and nuclear power is back in favour. In Germany, which relies on Russia for around one-third of its gas imports, the ultimate threat—a complete Russian cut-off—looks ever more plausible.
Meanwhile, claims that Russian forces are winning look hollow when they’ve lost a third of their combat capability and possibly more. Open-source intelligence puts cumulative equipment losses (destroyed, damaged, abandoned or captured) at 4,658 items, including more than 850 tanks.
So, old weapons that lack precision-guided systems are being brought into service, which is why missile strikes are inaccurate. In addition, stocks of Russian ammunition are reportedly running low. This problem is made worse by Ukrainian strikes against Russian ammunition dumps using the US-supplied HIMAR system. Russian bloggers are picking up on these attacks as discussed here.
By any reckoning, the war is not going well for Putin. The Russians needed more than two months to take the final pockets of Luhansk, while Putin’s minimal objectives have yet to be achieved. That’s why applying pressure on the West and splintering their unity may prove his best option.
The reality of that gambit was brought into sharp focus last week. Russia shut down all gas exports via a pipeline to Germany for about ten days of routine maintenance. A vital turbine needed fixing, and its manufacturer had shipped it to Canada for repair. But because of sanctions, the Canadians initially declined to return the turbine to Russia. Then, under tremendous pressure from Germany, Canada relented, returning the turbine to Germany for onward delivery to Russia. So much for sanctions.
You can see how precarious the situation has become for Germany and others that rely on Russian energy supplies.
Likewise, claims that Putin is mad, close to death or about to be killed by his people have proved futile nonsense. Senior officials in the West now acknowledge that Putin won’t fall from power anytime soon despite wishful thinking to the contrary.
So, the big question — how long will the war last? And what will the outcome be? History tells us that such conflicts rarely run smooth. Instead, there are periods of intense activity, followed by pauses, regrouping, and more fighting. Likewise, diplomatic solutions come and go in parallel with the battles.
What is remarkable is at the moment, there is no evidence of a possible ceasefire or agreed stepping back. We’ve seen no diplomatic activity nor any serious attempts at arbitration. Instead, the Ukrainians and the Russians continue to slug it out, while the West pours in the resources that keep the Russians at bay. Nobody is winning, and everyone is losing.
And what of China? China appears ambivalent about wholeheartedly supporting either party in the war. Its geopolitical calculations lead to a careful calibration of responses, and minimal involvement. It is fair to say that China’s position on the war must be viewed through the lens of competition with the United States. The future of Ukraine is a secondary issue.
That is why China is unlikely to join in any anti-Russia sanctions: not because Beijing supports Moscow’s military invasion of Ukraine but because acceding to those sanctions would mean submission to U.S. will, which is unacceptable to Beijing. It’s notable that China has not supplied arms or given any signs of tangible support to either side beyond humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
Whether the people of the West, in particular the Germans, can continue to support Ukraine will undergo a stress-test this winter. There is a school of thought that the West is already at war with Russia, although that distant thunder sounds like a phony war to many. In the UK, the ruling Tories have successfully compartmentalised the cost of living crisis from events in Ukraine. For example, none of the candidates in the Tory leadership contest, that will produce the next Prime Minister, has a different stance on challenging the Russians.
As the New Statesmen magazine opined, “They all follow the story woven by Boris Johnson – that Britain could shovel arms, ammunition and money into Ukraine without any domestic consequences. Our support for the war was framed as a free hit against totalitarianism, delivered by other people’s children and enhancing Britain’s reputation as the unilateral tough guy of Europe.”
Failing a sudden change in fortunes for one side, this war will rattle on for the foreseeable future in a dynamic stalemate. At the same time, Putin will use economic pressure by withholding gas and grain as the cold weather arrives.
By then, some of the current warm conditions may be a pleasant memory as the heating goes off at the behest of Putin. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.