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Ukraine gains heighten fears that Putin will use winter as a weapon

Fears are growing that embattled Russian President Vladimir Putin will use cold weather as a weapon in the fight against Ukraine by aggravating an energy crisis in Europe.Many European countries depend on Russia for heat in the cold winter months, giving Moscow more leverage as it battles a resurgent Ukraine that has taken back thousands of miles of territory with a recent offensive.

“The real question is, how much natural gas is Putin’s Russia going to supply this winter?” said Samantha Gross, director of the Brookings Institution’s Energy Security and Climate Initiative.

Putin has threatened to stop energy sales to some countries in retaliation against a proposal from the European Union to cap Russian oil and natural gas prices, while the energy crisis in Europe has already pushed countries to the brink of a recession.

The Russian leader, Gross noted, also said last week that he would increase gas sales to Europe if the international community relaxes sanctions in response to the invasion, which will almost certainly not occur.

“I think he’s running out of cards to play,” said Michael Allen, special assistant to former President George W. Bush on the National Security Council, referring to Putin. “He seems increasingly desperate because the Ukrainians took so much land over the weekend.”

Ukraine has recently gained thousands of miles of territory in the country’s northeast and forced thousands of Kremlin troops to retreat since the Ukrainian military’s counteroffensive began last week.

“It’s certainly not helping that the war isn’t going [Putin’s] way, and I think that may increase his tendency to lash out,” Gross told The Hill.

The U.S., meanwhile, has dramatically stepped up its own natural gas exports since the beginning of the crisis, but the federal government faces domestic pressure to keep much of that supply stateside heading into winter.

In late August, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm called on major oil refiners to limit their exports to Europe, citing the need to build up domestic diesel supply ahead of winter.

“I think we’re going to feel the pain too,” said Robbie Diamond, president of the energy security think tank Securing America’s Future Energy. Even as U.S. gas exports increased, natural gas prices hit an all-time high in August, he noted.

For Putin, the lost revenue from cutting off supplies to Europe can be made up from sales to other countries, Diamond noted. “So as long as he finds ways to get that oil out, even at a discounted price, he will continue to make revenue,” he said.

While Russia’s leverage on oil is a “global problem,” natural gas is far more specifically a European problem. Germany, in particular, relies heavily on inexpensive Russian gas for its industrial base, he said, so in a worst-case scenario, “it will not just be a cold winter, but it will be a winter with potential factory shutdowns.”

If Putin’s weaponization of energy continues, Gross said, its impacts on individual Europeans’ lives will vary “at the country level and the divisional level, depending on how consumers use natural gas [and] if they use natural gas.”

Heidi Crebo-Rediker, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, predicted there will be more “tightening of the screws” on energy and commodities from Putin.

But she also argued that Ukraine’s recent battlefield offensives will at least lead Europeans to continue their support for the Ukrainian army, despite the economic strains at home.

“For the Europeans, as they approach a daunting energy situation in the winter, seeing Ukraine’s military progress is a cause to rally additional fortitude that they’re going to need,” she said. “I think this particular turn of events on the battlefield goes to show that this cause is worth it and that there are military gains that are achievable.”

The U.S. has transported double the amount of natural gas to Europe it had exported last year, and the White House is looking at other options to help and increase national gas exports during the crisis.

Europe has increasingly been under pressure to reduce its dependence on Russian energy, and has reportedly cut imports by 35 percent since the war began.

“I think they know that the critique that the United States has of them, which is that they were unnecessarily dependent on Russian gas, is true and now they need to diversify as quickly as possible,” Allen said, adding that Europe is looking to other sources for gas, like the U.S.

U.K. Prime Minister Liz Truss is expected to announce details of her plan to mitigate the energy crisis next week. Meanwhile, the European Commission is looking to force fossil fuel companies that have seen record earnings during the energy crisis to make a financial contribution to assist consumers, Reuters reported.

“Europeans need to think through very carefully how they plan to handle this,” said Eric Ueland, the under secretary of State for civilian security, democracy and human rights under former President Trump. “More might have to be done if President Putin decides that energy is one of his strongest weapons here to react to the acts in Ukraine.”

For the countries most reliant on Russian gas, which last year included Italy, France and Germany, “the question is, will gas be available for these folks to heat their homes?” Gross said. “And even if it’s available, will they be able to afford it?”

The crisis also makes the actual seasonal temperatures of particular importance, she added. “Is it an unusually cold winter or is it a warm winter? We don’t know, but we’re about to find out.”

Diamond said that like both the fighting on the ground and the pressure from the international community, things are likely to come down to whether Putin or Europe is more willing to weather the consequences.

“I’d say this is a war of the Russian novel. Many people have said the reason Russian novels are historically so long is they have really long winters,” Diamond said.

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