Vladimir Putin will “weaponise winter” with attacks on infrastructure aimed at breaking Ukrainian morale to force surrender, experts suggest. On Thursday, Regional Governor Oleksandr Starukh said Russia’s military fired nine missiles on the city of Zaporizhzhia, hitting a hotel and a power station. Zaporizhzhia is about 31 miles from the nuclear plant of the same name – which is Europe’s largest. It came after Ukraine launched a counteroffensive which saw its forces seize back swathes of occupied territory, prompting questions as to how Russia will respond as winter approaches.
David H. Dunn, professor of international politics at the University of Birmingham, told Express.co.uk: “At a strategic level, Putin is trying to weaponise winter. With regards western Europe and Ukraine and the Ukrainians, it will be a difficult winter for all on the front line in these cold, harsh conditions.
“[Putin’s] bet will be the morale of the Ukrainians will collapse, but Ukrainians have been chopping down forests and stockpiling wood so as not to rely on stock piling gas. They know what [Putin’s] up to and are prepared for that.
“They say they can survive a cold winter, but can’t survive Russian occupation. They’ve suffered a huge amount already, but are prepared to keep on doing that.
“The key to surviving that is not what Russia can throw at them, but how long the West can supply the weapons and training they need to resist Russian attacks to push them further out or break them.”
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Winter will make fighting the war difficult for both Russia and Ukraine with intelligence harder to gather and progress on the ground hampered by bitter conditions.
Experts predict Moscow will increase attacks on civilian infrastructure, including by launching long range missiles from its own airspace in a bid to break the morale of the Ukrainian people and force Kyiv to seek terms.
Professor Dunn said: “[Putin] wants to destroy infrastructure and destroy morale and the [Ukrainians’] capacity to fight to force Ukraine into surrender.”
He added Russia turning off gas pipeline Nord Stream 1 was a bid by Putin to force Europe to stop supporting Ukraine.
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Ukraine might target logistics centres inside Russia, but such efforts may be limited with western restrictions over Kyiv directing arms supplied by the West towards its neighbour. Kyiv might concentrate more efforts on targeting Russian supply lines.
Robert Dover, professor of criminology at the University of Hull specialising in intelligence and national security, said Moscow may aim to destroy enough of Ukraine’s infrastructure to saddle the European Union with such a large bill it will be paying for decades for the reconstruction of the burgeoning EU member state.
He argued Putin will only seek to escalate the conflict, as seen this week when the Russian dictator repeated his threat to use nuclear weapons. The Russian leader also ordered a partial mobilisation, in a move not seen in Russia since World War Two.
Professor Dover, who described the current situation as tense and fluid, said: “I think we in the UK are looking at this with concern and scepticism as we know Putin will have to respond aggressively because he doesn’t have a de-escalation route which we understand.”
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He suggested this winter may see Russia ramp up its cyber warfare efforts, seek to create a radiological “accident” in Ukraine or pursue a general mobilisation of the Russian people.
Putin may also seek to create more chaos, distracting western attention from Ukraine by stoking tensions in the Balkans, threatening Moldova or intervening in situations affecting Kazakhstan, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
What is clear is both sides in the war are stretched militarily, though the momentum has been with the Ukrainians.
Professor Dover said: “Both sides are relatively stretched. There’s a chance of quite large movements of territory if Russian morale is as low as everyone thinks.”
Professor Dunn said Ukraine regaining occupied territory showed Russia’s armed forces had reached a culmination point where a variety of factors meant Moscow’s troops have effectively ground to a halt, lost momentum and run out of steam.
He warned the temptation for Ukraine would be to rush into territory ceded by the Russians, but to do so would leave Kyiv’s forces vulnerable to counter attack.
Ukraine may instead pursue a further offensive in the south with troops crossing a frozen Dnipro river to attack Russian positions or use the winter months to train more fighters ready to mount an offensive in the spring.
Professor Dunn said: “They will need to use winter to their advantage.”
Professor Dover said: “The Ukrainians have broken through the Russian lines and this makes the winter period difficult to predict, with accuracy. At one end of the spectrum, both sides might well try and hunker down and consolidate the territory they currently hold.
“As both sides are quite stretched at the moment, this could easily result in some sporadic and large movements in the lines if there are offensives and counter-offensives.
“At the other end of the spectrum, and as the bitter cold takes hold, the Russian defeats could turn into full-on routs if morale collapses on the Russian side.
“The very recent dissent on Russian talkshows will play a role in eroding the morale of the home audience and of their children fighting in Ukraine. The conditions in Ukraine – for fighting as well as for living – will be very challenging indeed.”
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