Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
Meanwhile, in Ukraine …
Breathless speculation that Moscow might detonate a tactical nuclear weapon eclipses the far more mundane but horrific reality of war.
On both sides, there is a human cost to those battling on the ever-changing frontline, which after nine months of heroic defence by Ukrainian forces, is now confined to the country’s south-east.
The upheaval to everyday civilian life continues. According to the United Nations refugee agency, since the beginning of the “special military operation” in February, one-third of Ukrainians have fled their homes. Some 7.7 million refugees have headed west, 1.4 million of them to Poland, while 6.2 million are displaced within Ukraine.
More hopefully, 1.2 million have returned to their country. Life in Kyiv and cities such as Lviv reportedly had a semblance of normality – until the recent drone strikes which specifically targeted Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.
For almost three weeks, power plants across Ukraine have come under fire, with one-third of them being destroyed, resulting in immediate black outs. In addition, a programme of rolling power cuts has been introduced across the country, with calls to Ukrainians voluntarily to limit their energy usage while repair teams get to work.
“Without gas or without you? Without you.” President Zelenskyy’s defiance of Moscow has given heart to Ukrainians who are preparing for a harsh winter of sacrifice.
Last week, Ukraine claimed it had shot down 37 Shahed-136 drones and 3 cruise missiles within 13 hours.
Originating in Iran, rebranded by Moscow, the Shahed/Geran 2 are low-tech and a comparatively cheap $20,000. With their guidance system upgraded by Russia, their accuracy has been enhanced although it remains far from perfect, a world away from the West’s laser guided weapons and “surgical” strikes, first seen 30 years ago during the first Gulf War. The drone campaign can compared to Germany’s V1 and V2 “revenge” attacks on southern England in 1944.
A “drone superpower” according to the author of Swarm Troopers, David Hambling, Iran was allegedly behind the September 2019 attack on two of the world’s largest oil refineries in Saudi Arabia. It caused an immediate 15 per cent spike in the global cost of oil, the largest for three decades, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency described the security and safety at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhya nuclear power station as “precarious”. It followed the repeated loss of external power lines needed for reactor cooling. For all Moscow’s talk of “uncontrolled escalation”, “consequential response” and a false flag dirty bomb attack by Ukraine, the real danger is surely not the deliberate deployment of small nuclear weapons, but a military mishap around Europe’s largest nuclear power facility.
The 2019 Saudi strike, together with the current blitzkrieg on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure and Moscow’s turning off the oil and gas tap to Europe, underline the fragility of global energy supplies.
The weaponisation of power is inevitable: without energy, everyday life halts. Having grown used to the security of comparatively cheap energy, we in Britain are learning that its sudden absence leads to destabilising inflation and worsens the cost-of-living crisis.
The late, unlamented Truss government’s response to soaring fuel bills was to spray money at the problem, with its untargeted £150 billion package to shield consumers from price hikes for up to two years. Jeremy Hunt has fortunately ruled out such state profligacy, although the full details of his plans won’t be known until next month’s fiscal statement.
Meanwhile, many voters are left scratching their (hatless) heads, trying to make sense of the Government’s muddle and mixed messaging over energy for the past decade. Even worse, they are beginning to wonder whether they will have to eat some (uncooked) humble pie and admit that the smug eco-loons from Insulate Britain might have a point after all.
Since the 2008 Climate Change Act during the Brown era, successive governments should have been trying to balance the security of energy supplies with low prices for consumers, while fulfilling their increasingly onerous self-imposed low carbon goals. With Moscow hitting Western Europe with the equivalent of the 1973 oil shock, policy shortcomings have been exposed.
A recent report by the UK Energy Research Centre points out that with countries currently scrambling to outbid one another to secure the Liquid Natural Gas supplies destined for markets in Asia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are instead going to burn more coal. In July, DEFRA announced coal-fired stations would remain open throughout this coming winter. The haze you can see is a decade and a half of British and European climate change policy going up in smoke.
In trying to address the current shortage of energy supply there has been next to no attempt to address the other side of the equation – demand.
Three weeks ago, Liz Truss vetoed a £15 million public information campaign on cutting energy use, reportedly because it could be judged nanny statist.
If, however, the battle for Ukraine symbolises the West’s wider battle for freedom and democracy, the people of Britain could be encouraged to show some solidarity by conserving energy.
With more drone strikes, there could well be power cuts in Kyiv, where day-time temperatures hover around freezing in the winter months. Need indoor temperatures in Kingston-upon-Thames or Kingston-upon-Hull rival Kingston, Jamaica’s balmy average of 26 degrees? Save energy, defeat Moscow.
Since August, Germany has been cutting its energy consumption. Among the measures in the Energy Saving Ordinance, is a 19 degrees limit to office temperatures. Overall, the EU aims to reduce overall power use by 15 per cent.
Giving every domestic household in the UK an automatic £400 rebate on their electricity bills is a get-poor(er)-quick scheme for taxpayers. It reflects the haphazard approach to energy-related policy, which in the last decade has seen the Cameron government ditch a carbon net zero target for new homes, the May administration commit to carbon net zero by 2050 and the Public Accounts Committee describe the Johnson government’s green home grant scheme as a “slam dunk fail”.
Over to you, Rishi Sunak. As one of your predecessors observed, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”