Winter’s Onset Will Change Russia’s War in Ukraine

From a Wall Street Journal story by Matthew Luxmoore and Stephen Fidler headlined “Winter’s Onset Will Change Russia’s War in Ukraine”:

KYIV, Ukraine—Winter is approaching on the Ukrainian steppe. As temperatures fall, waves of chilling rain follow, dissolving roads and fields, turning them to mud that mires men and equipment. Then comes the deep freeze and snow, hardening the ground but making it tougher to fight.

Armies on both sides of the war in Ukraine are girding for the unforgiving weather and shorter days of winter, which will affect the health and morale of troops, diminish the effectiveness of weapons and intelligence-gathering sensors and multiply the logistical difficulties of keeping soldiers in the field.

“Land warfare is generally very difficult. Winter warfare is doubly challenging,” said Mykola Bielieskov, a researcher at the National Institute for Strategic Studies, a government-backed think tank in Kyiv. “To mount a major offensive, minus-15 degrees will be a challenge for both sides.”

Winter will hit the home front. Moscow has embarked on a series of attacks on Ukrainian electricity-generation and heating plants, in an effort aimed at sapping Ukrainians’ will to fight. Russia has also moved to choke off energy supplies to Europe, hoping that the cold and discomfort being suffered by voters there will persuade governments to reduce support for Ukraine.

Bad weather will affect both sides and is likely to slow the tempo of fighting, said Ben Barry, a land-warfare specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “But if either side wants to fight, it can keep fighting.”

Ukraine has appealed to Western backers for winter supplies. The U.S. military has provided tens of thousands of pieces of cold-weather gear, the Pentagon said Friday, and thousands of items are being sent by Canada, Bulgaria and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization members. Posters in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities urge residents to donate money to “keep the armed forces warm.”

“There has been a lot of focus on winter clothing, on equipment to enable them to also operate throughout the winter, generators, tents, and all the things which are extremely important to enable the Ukrainian forces to operate also throughout the winter,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, after meetings of defense ministers to discuss support for Ukraine this month.

Russia is bringing in reinforcements, often poorly trained, made up mostly of men enlisted in a big mobilization drive launched in late September. Videos published by the Russian Defense Ministry show President Vladimir Putin being shown around training camps where officers demonstrate cold-weather gear provided to new recruits, and Kremlin-aligned bloggers are stepping up crowdfunding campaigns for extra supplies.

Western officials said Ukraine will likely be better equipped than the Russians, thanks to Western supplies, and its soldiers are better motivated. But any Ukrainian advances are likely to be slowed by winter conditions. Russia, which Western analysts say has little chance of advancing, has the easier job of defending territory.

On the battlefield, the commander of a Ukrainian unit in the country’s east said winter will make it much harder for his soldiers to conceal themselves.

The war in eastern Ukraine is in large part an artillery war. Ukrainian troops fire then move quickly to another location, knowing that Russia is likely to strike at the location the shells were fired from. On snow, the tracks of the Ukrainians’ vehicles will be visible to Russian drones and can be used to pinpoint the place the soldiers moved to. If the soldiers light a fire to warm themselves, they will be even more visible and the lack of leaves on trees will expose them further.

“We can’t fight the way we used to in the spring and summer. It’s much harder to hide,” Mr. Bielieskov said. “New strategies and methods will be devised, and we will fight in new realities.”

The toughest conditions will be in November and early December—part of a period the Russians call “rasputitsa,” the time when the roads dissolve—after which the mud will turn into hard ground and it will be easier to move around until the next rasputitsa as winter gives way to spring.

“Whoever prepares better and is able to use this situation to his advantage will be able to move forward,” Mr. Bielieskov said.

Russian lore holds that “General Winter” and his fellow “General Mud” will come to Russia’s side as they did in past centuries to repel Napoleon’s and Hitler’s forces from Moscow.

Yet, this time, Russia is the invading rather than defending army. When the Soviet Union invaded Finland in the winter of 1939-40, the Finns were better equipped for the cold than the invaders and familiar with the terrain. Contemporary estimates put Soviet losses as many as 10 times those of the Finns, though in the end Finland capitulated.

Winter can bring opportunities. Mr. Bielieskov cites the Battle of Moscow in 1941, when the mud froze in the second half of November, creating opportunities for both the Germans and the Soviets that the latter better exploited.

George Washington turned the tide of the Revolutionary War against the British when his depleted forces crossed the ice-choked Delaware River during a snowstorm on Christmas night 1776 and launched a successful surprise attack on Hessian mercenaries at Trenton on the following day.

Yury Bereza, commander of the Dnipro-1 battalion of Ukraine’s National Guard, says each of the 1,500 men under his command are being equipped with spare pairs of boots and warm blankets as winter sets in. “Winter first and foremost means wet boots and socks,” he said. “We have to prepare for that.”

In the network of trenches his men have dug on the outskirts of Slovyansk in eastern Ukraine, they have large reserves of wood and camp stoves, he said.

Mr. Bereza, who has fought the war against Russia since 2014, noted the difference between winter in eastern Ukraine, where temperatures can plummet to minus-20 degrees Celsius (minus-4 Fahrenheit), and the south where they tend to be milder.

He said both sides will struggle once temperatures fall and the ground freezes, but believes the Russians will suffer more. “It’s only in commercials that Russian equipment works in minus-20 degrees,” he said. “Ours functions better, but in reality everything slows down, and we need extra fuel and oil to make sure our equipment doesn’t break down.”

Pro-Kremlin bloggers have launched crowdfunding campaigns to gather donations toward warm clothes for Russian men mobilized for the war in Ukraine.

“Our guys shouldn’t be in need of such things, and should understand that the whole Motherland is behind them,” blogger Yury Podolyaka said in a video address on Sept. 29. Two weeks later, Mr. Podolyaka said he had gathered 400 million rubles ($6.5 million).

“Our warehouses turned out to be empty,” he said.

One military blogger who goes by the nickname Kotenok Z and often reflects the Kremlin line said Russia’s military operations will soon be significantly hampered by the weather.

“Soon we’ll enter a period of rasputitsa, frost, and a transition from the fall to winter period of resistance. That means the front line will stabilize in most places, and trench warfare will continue” he said this month.

“We’re entering a period of attenuation. Winter is coming. The days are shorter, there are rains and clouds,” Aleksandr Khodakovsky, a commander of Russian proxy forces in eastern Ukraine, told the news outlet Komsomolskaya Pravda on Oct. 14. “The enemy understands this too and it seems it’s trying to break through in places in these last warm and dry days.”

Matthew Luxmoore is a reporter covering Russia, Ukraine and the former Soviet Union with a particular focus on Russia’s defense, national security and the role of its military on the world stage. He was previously Moscow Correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and was the 2018 winner of New York University’s Reporting Award and a recipient in 2015 of the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award. Matthew grew up in Poland and holds a master’s degree from the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard, where he was a Frank Knox Fellow.

Stephen Fidler is bureau chief at large at The Wall Street Journal in London. From 2017 to 2021, he was U.K. and Brexit editor, leading coverage of the U.K.’s breakup with the European Union, as well as politics and economics in the U.K. and Ireland. From 2009 to 2017, he was the Journal’s Brussels editor, heading coverage of the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He was part of a team of Journal reporters named as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for their reporting on the eurozone debt crisis.

Speak Your Mind