Ukraine’s Winter Cold Could Turn Against Russian Troops

From a Wall Street Journal story by Alistair MacDonald and Oksana Pyrozhok headlined “Ukraine’s Winter Cold Could Turn Against Russian Troops”:

BAKHMUT, Ukraine—In the battle to keep warm, Ukrainian infantryman Kyrylo Molchanov has turned to “trench candles”—empty food cans packed with cardboard—to heat his front-line dugout.

With Russia and Ukraine fighting through the winter, keeping Ukrainian soldiers warm could become a competitive advantage for Kyiv.

For armies, winter weather affects everything from maneuverability to battery power. But the cold and wet can have a crushing effect on soldiers’ morale and ability to fight, while creating potential medical problems.

The U.S. and its allies have sent hundreds of thousands of pieces of winter clothing. Ukraine has supplemented those supplies from elsewhere, and the various items in Lt. Molchanov’s uniform come from several countries.

Some Russian soldiers seem to be arriving for battle less well kitted out, hindered in part by a hasty mobilization drive in the fall.

Ukraine’s armed forces are adapting, cutting wood from local forests, sourcing smaller barracks and using the trench candles, which volunteers and family send packed tight with rolls of cardboard.

“If you light it an hour or two before going to bed, it heats up more than you would expect,” Lt. Molchanov said from Ukraine’s southern front line.

Ukraine’s winter has so far been mild, but temperatures can frequently drop to below minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mild or not, winter affects fighting in many ways. As leaves fall, it is harder to conceal equipment. Fog, rain and snow make identifying targets more difficult. Cold degrades battery life faster, affecting drones and radios. Mud makes movement problematic, but when the ground freezes, digging trenches and minefields is harder. Soldiers burn more calories in the cold, so need more food.

But one of the biggest problems is that wet and cold weather can affect morale and performance.

“When you are really, really cold, you stop thinking about anything except how cold you are,” said Ben Hodges, a former commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe, who says Western-supplied clothing and better leadership to help troops keep warm gives Ukraine the advantage.

Having the right uniforms, sleeping bags and clothing such as socks is essential to any winter fight, said Ed Arnold, from the Royal United Services Institute, a London defense-and-security think tank.

The former British infantry officer witnessed the negative effects of cold weather on his troops in winter training.

“Soldiers can degrade in a couple of days if they are not in the right mind-set and haven’t got the right kit,” he said.

In the muddy, scrappy conditions of the front line, uniforms don’t last long, said Nico Woods, a former U.S. Navy officer who is now a manager at the Ukrainian Freedom Fund, a charity that has been supplying winter gear to Ukraine.

To this end, charity groups and allied Western militaries have sent containers full of winter clothing to Ukraine. Canada sent up to 500,000 pieces, including jackets, pants, boots, gloves and parkas. The U.S. has said it would send 50,000 parkas, 4,700 pairs of pants, more than 23,000 pairs of boots and 18,000 gloves, among other items. When Ukrainian soldiers train in Britain, they return home with full winter clothing. Other allies have contributed supplies.

At a military base in eastern Ukraine, boxes of boots, thick padded jackets, snow camouflage, fleeces and thermal underwear from around the world are piled high up the walls of several rooms.

Ukraine’s cosmopolitan wardrobe shows on its soldiers. Outside Bakhmut, a Ukrainian army captain pointed out his U.S. Army T-shirt, pants from the Marine Corps and a Polish jacket.

Russian troops, particularly new recruits, appear to be less well equipped to deal with cold weather. Russian social media feature videos showing new recruits complaining about their lack of suitable kit while media reports chart soldiers stocking up on cold-weather gear.

Ukrainians also sometimes have to supplement their gear, said a front-line infantryman who has used Japanese chemical patches that warmed his legs for eight hours. Not all foreign uniforms are especially warm, and front-line troops sometimes buy extra boots because their standard-issue footwear doesn’t keep them warm enough, he said.

Keeping warm on the front line is more difficult because heat makes it easier to target positions through thermal sensors and smoke from wood fires gives away locations. That is why many soldiers are turning to the more targeted warmth of a trench candle.

The supply of electricity, which Russia has targeted across Ukraine, can be particularly patchy on the front.

When securing barracks, troops look for small buildings with wood-burning stoves, said an artillery commander from 46th Brigade outside of Soledar. His barracks have no electricity or gas supply.

On a recent visit, a small stove, or burzhuyka, warmed the three-room barracks, a crumbling house. At night, people have to wake up to refuel it, the commander said. Outside, a group of artillery men stood around a small wood fire, a pile of wood and ax beside them.

Wood is an essential fuel in this war. Throughout parts of eastern Ukraine, soldiers can be seen cutting logs in local woods. Roadside guard posts have wood-burning heaters, with piles of logs stored outside.

Troops’ ability to deal with cold weather has proven pivotal in past conflicts, such as when Nazi Germany invaded Ukraine and the rest of the Soviet Union.

There, German soldiers envied the Red Army’s padded cotton jackets, which were warmer than their own “greatcoats” made from recycled wool, said Antony Beevor, a historian who has written about the battle of Stalingrad. Germans had a higher rate of frostbite, he said.

Frostbite, trench foot and pneumonia are among the conditions that take soldiers out of action in the winter. Even minor injuries and illness have grave consequences in cold and muddy trenches, doctors say.

Fedir Aleksevich, a medic of the Skala battalion that defends Bakhmut, said that severe frostbite was a serious problem for his unit earlier this month. Dr. Aleksevich said these cases, luckily, weren’t grave enough to end up with amputations, which has happened in some other units.

Dr. Aleksevich says soldiers need warm and dry socks to avoid frostbite, not tightfitting footwear, which stops proper blood circulation.

There are other problems.

Andriy Zholob, the commander of the 46th Brigade’s medical unit, described what he called an epidemic of flu.

“Winter is flu, flu is winter,” he said.

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