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    From the editor: Could Kremlin use terrorist attack to intensify Ukraine war? [Gas in Transition]


Moscow is already heavily bombarding Ukrainian energy infrastructure, while Kyiv is continuing a campaign of drone strikes against Russian oil refineries.

by: NGW

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From the editor: Could Kremlin use terrorist attack to intensify Ukraine war? [Gas in Transition]

Russians are in a state of shock and disbelief following the country’s worst terrorist attack in 20 years on the evening of March 23, when gunmen indiscriminately opened fire on civilians at a concert hall on the outskirts of Moscow and set the building on fire, killing at least 140 people. An ISIS affiliate group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but this has not stopped the Kremlin and its security services pointing the finger to Ukraine and its Western backers.

Against this backdrop, during the previous night Russia unleashed its largest offensive against Ukrainian energy and other critical infrastructure since its invasion began, using a barrage of missiles, drones and guided aerial bombs to hit dozens of thermal power plants and electrical substations, as well as the country’s largest hydroelectric station, on the Dnipro river. UN officials on the ground estimated on March 23 that 1.5mn people had been left without electricity supply.

Meanwhile, Ukraine is countering Russian attacks with a months-long campaign of drone strikes against Russian oil refineries.

If, as seems likely, the Kremlin continues pushing the narrative that Kyiv and its allies are ultimately to blame for last Friday’s horrific events, and if that narrative is bought by the Russian people, the war may see further escalation.

Shifting blame to Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin has acknowledged that last week’s terror attack was carried out by Islamic militants, but he has also implied Ukrainian involvement – an unsubstantiated claim that Kyiv has strongly denied. According to Putin, the suspected gunmen were captured while trying to escape to Ukraine through a “window” prepared for them on the Ukrainian side of the border.

“The question that arises is who benefits from this? This atrocity may be just a link in a whole series of attempts by those who have been at war with our country since 2014 by the hands of the neo-Nazi Kyiv regime,” the Russian leader said in an address on March 26. He drew a comparison between the terrorist attack and Ukrainian strikes on civilian targets and energy infrastructure.

“Bloody acts of intimidation such as the terrorist attack committed in Moscow quite logically fit in this series,” he said.

The head of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) Alexander Bortnikov went further on March 27, alleging the involvement of Western spy agencies.

“We believe that radical Islamists prepared the action, while Western special services have assisted it and Ukrainian special services had a direct part in it,” Bortnikov said, without giving further details.

The Kremlin's obvious interest is in deflecting blame for failing to prevent the tragedy, even though Washington has said it warned Moscow that an attack was imminent earlier this month, sharing their information with Russian security services. But Russian authorities may also use the attack to tighten control over the population and escalate the war in Ukraine. As has been claimed in various Telegram news channels in Russia, this might involve a new wave of military mobilisation – under normal circumstances a very politically risky move.

Wearing down Ukraine's energy system

Russia has consistently targeted Ukrainian energy infrastructure since the war began, to weaken the country’s resolve and impair its armed forces.

In the 2022-23 winter, Russia targeted Ukrainian energy facilities with more than 1,200 missiles, drones and bombs. For most of the cold season, authorities had to implement rolling blackouts to keep the power system from collapsing. Then in June 2023, one of Ukraine’s largest hydropower plants, Kakhovska on the Dnipro, was blown up.

Russian forces employed the same strategy last winter, although Ukraine was better prepared, having beefed up its air defences with the help of Western systems such as American Patriot missiles. But with the US having halted deliveries of weapons and military equipment at the start of this year, because extra funding has been blocked by Republican lawmakers, Ukraine is now more vulnerable.

The latest attacks mirror previous ones. Fortunately, though, warming weather means that demand for heating is falling. But should Russian attacks persist at the current intensity, with Western supplies still on hold, Ukraine’s energy system will be worn down ahead of next winter.

Ukraine’s natural gas supply has been less affected by the conflict, and the country continues to transit Russian gas via its territory as in peacetime. Notably, though, for the first time Russia also hit an underground gas storage (UGS) site in the country’s west on March 24. Ground infrastructure will have to be restored, although the gas stored deep underground was not affected. Ukraine has been trying to convince European traders to store more gas in the country, and the attack will raise concerns about the risks of doing this. 

Hitting Russian fuel supply

Ukraine started targeting Russian oil refineries at the start of last year and has stepped up those attacks in terms of frequency and range over the past few months, with plants getting hit dozens of times since January. Ukraine has rapidly expanded its capacity for producing inexpensive drones that can travel thousands of kilometres into Russian territory. One suspected drone strike occurred as far north as Novatek’s Ust-Luga gas-condensate terminal on the Baltic Sea in January, forcing its temporary closure.

Kyiv’s drone campaign is aimed at crippling fuel supply to the Russian military and the industry that supports it, while also inflicting economic cost through lost export revenues. Given the relatively low cost of these operations, Ukrainian forces are likely to continue them – that is unless the government gives into pressure from Washington, which has called for the attacks to be ended because of the impact on global fuel prices.

Russian fuel production has taken a hit as a result of the strikes, but not a substantial one. In most cases refiners have been able to quickly make the necessary repairs and restore production within days or weeks. But it is nevertheless succeeding in causing Russia economic pain, as well as diverting air defence systems from the front line to protect strategic energy infrastructure at home.

Exploiting a crisis

It is too early to say whether Russia will indeed exploit the terrorist attack to expand the scope of its war effort. But the Kremlin has often sought to turn a crisis to its advantage. This and Putin’s recent landslide election win – condemned by the West as neither fair nor democratic – may embolden the Kremlin to act more aggressively and recklessly in the war. At least according to the Ukrainian military, Moscow is already preparing 100,000 troops for a possible new ground offensive this summer. Heavy and sustained attacks on Ukraine’s energy system could also continue.