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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

A Russian Winter In Kyiv? Putin’s Bitter History Lessons From Hitler And Napoleon

It's worth remembering that Vladimir Putin was born in Leningrad, just a decade after the brutal Nazi siege. A reflection on the Kremlin's emerging war strategy from Ukrainian writer Anna Akage.

Photo of Russian on a tank ploughing through the snow in the Kostroma region of Russia

Russian soldiers during a military exercise in the Kostroma region of Russia

Anna Akage

-Analysis-

Russians and Ukrainians share an expression for when the weather turns harsh: "On top of all our misfortunes, there are also four seasons."

Winter no doubt is the harshest, and was the season Vladimir Putin chose for last February's invasion — though his plans to conquer Ukraine by springtime have long since come and gone.

This autumn has been marked by the Ukrainian military’s great advances on the battlefield, but also Putin's decision to target civilians in cities around the country, either with direct hits on apartment buildings, or with what may ultimately be more brutal in the long run: the destruction of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.

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Yes, Vladimir Putin knows that winter is returning.


Already, some 30% of Ukraine’s power system have been damaged or destroyed. Power cuts have begin — and in some cities, there hasn't been electricity or water for more than a week.

Freezing for four months

Putin’s strategy comes with a double punch, as Russian strikes on power stations and substations over the past two weeks has also prompted the government to announce the suspension of energy exports.

As noted by Ukraine’s Energy Minister Herman Galushchenko: "The export of electricity from Ukraine helped Europe reduce the consumption of Russian energy resources.”

Four full months of frost, snow, and wind.

Europe is already beginning to doubt whether the impact of the war on energy prices will be worth its support for Ukraine, especially when the cold sets in. Putin is trying to freeze Kyiv from without and within.

Now is the time to remember what a Ukrainian winter is like: four full months of frost, snow, and wind. With Putin's attacks on infrastructure, the risk is not merely the cost of energy, but that it might be completely cut off. Places where heat is shut for an extended time pose legitimate life and death circumstances, especially for the sick and elderly.

Photo of a man walking on a snowy road in Ukraine's Donbass region

Winter in Ukraine's Donbass region

Celestino Arce/ZUMA

Will Ukraine have heat?

Ukrainians are already bracing for the worst. Maxim Tymchenko, who runs the largest private investment in Ukraine's energy sector, is cautious: "I don't believe we will have an Armageddon. Though, I didn't believe Russia would launch a war either,” he said. “Everything is possible, but I have confidence that we will overcome these challenges."

For his part, energy expert Viktor Kurteyev fears the winter for Ukraine will be worse than most now realize: because of shelling, but also because of the technical unpreparedness of many large power plants, and lack of sufficient coal reserves.

"The power system is built in such a way that in the event of damage to one or two substations, nothing critical will happen,” explains Kurteyev. “But if the consumption exceeds the generation, the system will disconnect the consumers from the power grid.”

Memories of Leningrad

At this point, it is difficult to be surprised by Putin’s level of cynicism and outright cruelty. And yet. One should recall that he was born in the city that is now called St. Petersburg. During World War II, the city was named Leningrad, site of one of the most brutal siege’s in history: nearly 900 days of blockade during the Nazi assault, an estimated 1.5 million deaths — 97% from hunger and cold.

"Kyiv in three days", remember?

When Russians were the ones defending themselves from invaders, the seasons were both friends and foes: the snow and frost were two causes of great Russian wartime suffering, but ultimately helped defeat Napoleon in 1812 and Hitler in 1942. This is where we get the phrase "Russian winter," a sentence that evokes neither Christmas cards nor fireplaces, but the defeat of foreign armies and the desperate plight of civilians.

When Russia attacked Ukraine, the world was turned upside down. Putin sent an army that was not prepared for war to Ukraine, and even less prepared for winter ("Kyiv in three days", remember?). And now, he is trying to level the playing field by stripping Ukraine of its energy resources.

The genetic memory of war, hunger, and cold is still very strong in both Russia and Ukraine. It is no doubt in the very fiber of Vladimir Putin, and helps explain why he is spending his autumn sowing seeds of terror among Ukraine’s civilians, to deprive them of heat, steal their grain, leave cities in ashes.

My great-grandmother, after whom I am named, survived two famines and World War II. She died at a respectable age, surrounded by her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, in relative comfort and peace. And yet, until her very last day, before she went to sleep, she put a piece of bread under her pillow. There are seasons that we never forget.

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