Intelligence Brief: Indirect Russian Retaliation after December?

In Russia’s war against Ukraine, the combatants continue to slug it out on the battlefield. In addition to battlefield actions, Russia on the one hand and Ukraine and its supporters on the other continue to press for political and economic advantage to force an end to the conflict on their preferred terms. For Russia, military setbacks on the battlefield since late August have meant a search for other forms of leverage, whether political or economic, on both the government in Kyiv and its Western supporters. For Ukraine and the West, the political isolation and economic privation of Russia have been steady and increasing parts of the overall campaign plan. This escalation across the military, political, and economic spheres is likely to continue into the winter. For Russia, winter may provide both a respite from some of Ukraine’s military advances and an opportunity to increase pressure on Europe’s populations and politicians as temperatures drop and scaled back Russian energy deliveries mean colder flats and idled factories.

On the military side, the call up of Russian reservists so far has gone poorly with no short-term increase in Russian military capabilities coupled with increased domestic opposition to the war. Importation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and surface-to-surface missiles from Iran may temporarily refill some depleted Russia stocks but are unlikely to be sufficient to turn the tide. Verbal threats of nuclear weapons use so far have been met with steady and calm responses by the United States and its European allies. Economic measures – reducing or cutting off exports of fuels to Europe – are problematic. They reduce revenues to Russia that help support their war efforts.

Meanwhile, Europe and the G7 have taken their own steps to reduce imports or reduce revenues going to Russia. On December 5, the EU will ban waterborne imports of crude oil from Russia (with a petroleum product import ban following on February 5), and the G7 continues to work on an effort to cap the global price paid for Russian oil, which should be contemporaneous with the crude oil import ban.

Will Russia retaliate on December 5, or February 5? Probably not directly, but Moscow will likely use its economic leverage or conduct overt or covert military actions against European energy infrastructure over the winter months based on Putin’s view of how the war is going and whether the timing is propitious for their use.

Measures that directly impact the comfort of Europe’s population, and therefore pressure Western politicians, might be deemed more effective in winter. Therefore, energy infrastructure such as pipelines, LNG or oil tankers making deliveries to Europe, or floating regasification units, are all potential targets for attacks. The bombing of the Nord Stream pipelines, almost certainly by Russia, may have been a veiled threat. Since then, initial moves against such targets or preparations for them have likely started in the form of bomb threats against Norwegian gas plants and the arrest of a Russian man flying drones around airfields and other infrastructure in northern Norway.

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