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Russia’s Winter War Has Frozen Europe’s Politics

Weaponising energy is a part of Russia’s winter war, hoping the cold saps Western morale and splits European ranks.

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Christmas across the European continent was more subdued this year than usual, thanks to the war in Ukraine. Country after country sought to reduce their electricity consumption amid a cut in Russian gas supplies.

Iconic stores on Paris’ Champs Elysees and the famous Christmas lights of London’s Oxford Street went dark every evening. In Germany, a government campaign sought to reduce energy consumption. The war in the far east of Europe is hitting households in the West.

Weaponizing energy is all part of Russia’s winter war, hoping the cold months will sap Western morale and split European ranks. For months, the war has taken a terrifying toll on Arab and African countries, as the conflict disrupted global food supplies and rocketed the price of staple products.

But Moscow hopes the winter war will be its secret weapon, freezing Europeans into opposing the sanctions levied by their governments, and, by seeking to destroy energy infrastructure across the country, freezing Ukrainians into submission.

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Will it work? No. But not because European resolve is so strong, but because there is currently nothing for Westerners to agitate for or against. There is no credible peace plan on the table, no road map for how negotiations could begin. Europe’s politics is frozen.

For Russia’s winter war to work, there needs to be, first, a way for Moscow to end that war.

That the war is militarily deadlocked is well known. The head of Ukraine’s military intelligence admitted as much last week. Front lines have barely moved for weeks, a situation that suits Moscow. A lack of momentum allows Russia to focus on destroying energy infrastructure, and saps Ukrainian morale.

But the war is politically deadlocked as well.

On the Ukrainian side, there is a peace plan, which Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky took to Washington, although the US president was careful not to endorse it directly.

Part of the reason for that is the central clause of the plan, which calls for the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty – a clause which logically means the restoration of not merely the four regions in the east and south that Russia has occupied, but even the Crimean territories seized in 2014.

It is difficult to imagine Russia accepting such a clause and indeed Russia’s Sergei Lavrov dismissed it out of hand.

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Equally, however, the maximalist demand laid down by the Kremlin, that Ukraine recognise those four Ukrainian regions as Russian, is impossible to imagine. It seems, at a minimum, that Ukraine’s leaders would require some push from the outside world to be able to accept anything like that.

This, then, is the heart of the deadlock. Both sides believe, if not that they are winning, then that they have the potential to win.

For Ukraine, Zelensky’s first trip abroad since the invasion to Washington solidified a feeling that the superpower is with Ukraine and will ensure a battlefield victory.

For Russia, despite significant losses of troops and territorial losses, the country has vast military potential and can sustain a far longer, more brutal conflict.

Even the extensive Western sanctions have been shrugged off - the country’s economy appears to have shrunk by less than 3 percent since February, a much smaller amount than the 10-15 percent contraction predicted at the start of the invasion.

Indeed, the longer the war goes on, the harder any political agreement will be to negotiate. Kyiv clearly feels too much blood has been spilled for it to simply hand over annexed territories in return for peace.

For Moscow, a “military operation” that has claimed a minimum of tens of thousands of soldiers would be difficult to justify without swallowing substantial territory.

Even among European leaders there is an understanding that a way out is getting harder to find.

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Partly that is a reflection of a specific decision in Washington to cede control of the timing and scope of negotiations to Kyiv, a decision that has made maximalist demands easier.

But it is also because, with no real political options on the table, there is nothing for Europe to be divided about. With no negotiations and no potential parameters, there are no political options to debate.

There is only one side: anti-war.

Everything else is frozen. Little wonder that Europe’s leaders are keeping their heads down: focusing, like Rishi Sunak in the UK or Olaf Scholz in Germany, on the economy, waiting for Washington to offer solutions.

Indeed, the rare times a political option comes up – such as when Emmanuel Macron last month suggested Russia could be offered “security guarantees” to end the war – it is almost immediately shot down by Ukrainians or Europeans.

If a frozen war benefits Moscow, a frozen politics benefits no one. The vast changes wrought by the war to global trade and politics are solidifying.

New alliances are being formed. Companies and states from Europe to the Gulf are deciding where to allocate billions of dollars in investments. The war has warped global markets and politics and that warping could easily become permanent.

A solution to Russia’s war in Ukraine doesn’t need to come from Russia or Ukraine. But it needs to come from somewhere. A frozen war is really a war without end, and there is no guarantee what shape the world will be in once it thaws.

(Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai)

(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same. This article was published in an arrangement with Syndication Bureau.)

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Topics:  Russia   Europe   Russia Ukraine Crisis 

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