Doom Loop

It was on that day the technological war was decided.” – Albert Speer

On May 12, 1944, the Western allies began targeting key German oil infrastructure in an extensive bombing campaign that would persist until the end of the war. The primary target that fateful day was the massive IG Farben Leuna Works, one of the biggest synthetic oil factories in the country. Critical to the Nazi war machine, Leuna was among the most heavily defended industrial sites in Europe, and losses among US and British pilots were high. All told, more than 6,500 bomber sorties dropped over 18,300 tons of bombs on the facility during the campaign. Albert Speer, Minister of Armaments and War Production in Nazi Germany, described the devastating consequences of the raids in his book, Inside the Third Reich:

Until then we had managed to produce approximately as many weapons as the armed forces needed, in spite of their considerable losses. But with the attack of nine hundred and thirty-five daylight bombers of the American Eighth Air Force upon several fuel plants in central and eastern Germany, a new era in the air war began. It meant the end of German armaments production.

The next day, along with technicians of the bombed Leuna Works, we groped our way through a tangle of broken and twisted pipe systems. The chemical plants had proved to be extremely sensitive to bombing; even optimistic forecasts could not envisage production being resumed for weeks.

IG Farben Leuna works, before the strikes | Bundesarchiv

War is essentially the concentrated conveyance of destructive energy, and the history of war can best be understood through the lens of primary energy development, its efficient conversion into weapons, and its resulting delivery against the enemy. It follows logically that targeting core energy infrastructure is a particularly powerful tactic of war, and successful efforts in this regard can lead to an opponent’s rapid collapse.

Judging by the lengthy detail of his various public pronouncements, Russian President Vladimir Putin is a student of history. This spring, Russia stepped up its direct assault on all aspects of the Ukrainian energy grid, dealing a series of devastating blows to the beleaguered country just as momentum on the battlefield was accelerating in Russia’s favor. As spring turns into summer, analysts are beginning to raise alarms about Ukraine’s ability to fare the upcoming winter, and the outlook seems rather grim:

Ukraine is imposing blackouts, launching hasty repairs and hunting for spare parts after a Russian bombing campaign targeting power infrastructure in recent months slashed the country’s electricity production by half.

The Russian attacks, using waves of missiles and explosive drones, have sparked fears of a painful winter should the power outages severely hamper the economy and lead to an exodus from cities. Ukraine has long pleaded with the West for more air-defense systems, and Ukrainian officials say deliveries have been insufficient to protect both cities and the front lines.

Destroyed power plant in Kharkiv | The New York Times

The renewed campaign against Ukraine’s grid was ostensibly in response to Ukrainian drone attacks on Russian oil refineries, a potential outcome we warned against in a piece published in mid-March titled “The Energy War Goes Kinetic”:

The normalization of extra-legal attacks on critical energy chokepoints sets up a particularly dangerous period where even a simple misunderstanding might be the proximate cause of inadvertent intensification—up to and including outright war between NATO and Russia.”

With NATO countries now blessing the use of Western weapons deep inside Russian territory, reports of Ukrainian drone attacks against Russia’s strategic nuclear early-warning radar systems, and Russia’s recent tactical nuclear readiness drills, the risk of a worst-case-scenario outcome has been sharpening—ever more so now with the devastation of Ukraine’s energy grid. When winter arrives, scenes of desperate citizens struggling against brutally cold conditions will undoubtedly cause outrage in the West and fuel a sense of desperation among Ukrainian leaders, potentially triggering an irreversible escalation. What are the odds of this outcome and are there any realistic off-ramps? Might the imminent prospect of such a grave scenario precipitate a negotiated settlement to the hostilities? Let’s assess the possibilities.

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