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Military briefing: Russia and Ukraine prepare for rigors of winter war

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Winter has played a major role in Russian and Ukrainian military history. It was decisive in their victories over Napoleon and Nazi Germany, and in what Kyiv-born writer Mikhail Bulgakov called that “great and terrible year” of 1918, when “the snowstorm from the north howled and howled” and Ukraine was beginning its war of independence.

The weather is set to be a critical factor again as the fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces enters its ninth month, security officials and military experts said.

Keeping warm in a country where winter temperatures can drop as low as -30C is not the only consideration. At such extremes, equipment becomes harder to operate, booby traps can be hidden under snow, more fuel is needed for generators, supplies must move at night as there is less field cover, and navigation systems for some drones ice over. Even bullets are slower because cold air is denser than warm.

While freezing temperatures did not stop Putin’s full invasion, launched on February 24, that came as winter was ending.

“Weather has an impact on any kind of activity, including military,” said Oleksiy Melnyk, a former Ukraine air force lieutenant-colonel and now co-director of the Razumkov Center think-tank in Kyiv. “It will have an impact on both sides.”

The combatants will be affected very differently, however, according to military experts.

Russian president Vladimir Putin is betting that the waves of missile and drone attacks that Moscow launched this month, and which have destroyed 40 per cent of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, will demoralize Ukrainian civilians and sap Kyiv’s ability to support its troops.

Kyiv residents were told on Thursday to prepare for longer and more frequent blackouts, while Ukrainian refugees have been told not to return to the country this winter to ease strains on the country’s energy system.

“The networks will not cope,” deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk warned. “We need to survive the winter.”

Workers repair equipment after a Russian strike on Ukrainian power lines
Workers repair equipment after a Russian strike on Ukrainian power lines. Moscow hopes the strategy will demoralize civilians and sap Kyiv’s ability to support its troops. © Sergey Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

A second strand of Putin’s strategy is that the cold typically slows the tempo of military operations. That will help Russia sustain its lines of defense and to hold captured territory — an approach analysts say is central to the thinking of General Sergei Surovikin, recently appointed Russia’s commander in Ukraine.

“In winter, you need more logistics to support people because it’s colder and darker. You need more fuel. All this adds to frictions that slow operations, which tends to favor defence,” said Anthony King, professor of war studies at Warwick University.

However, Ukraine has other advantages which may prove more decisive, especially when it comes to keeping troops supplied and warm. Canada is providing Ukraine with half a million winter uniforms, while a Nato summit this month focused on how to support Ukraine through the colder months.

“The Russians expect the winter season will help them, at least in the energy war. . . But Ukrainian soldiers will be much better off,” said Melnyk, partly because they can rely on material support from local populations. He cited a recent visit to a detachment near Kyiv, where he saw “locals helping provide [clean laundry]making sure [the soldiers] had food and bringing them whatever they needed”.

Special forces officer Taras Berezovets, who is deployed in the frontline city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, said: “We have a lot of stuff from volunteers. We have gas stored up. We have autonomous sources of power. . . The command was: get prepared.”

Russian troops do not enjoy the same level of support in newly occupied areas. Many of the tens of thousands of recently mobilized soldiers Moscow is rushing to Ukraine’s 1,100km frontline also lack basic equipment.

In one video published by Russian news outlet Astra, recruits complained they had been sent to Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region without adequate supplies. “We’re in enemy territory and we don’t have a single cartridge,” one of the men said.

“I get lots of messages from the training camps where they’re sending the recruits,” said Pavel Gubarev, a former separatist leader in Donetsk, one of four Russian-controlled Ukrainian regions that Putin annexed in September. “There’s no military training and the conditions are dire.”

After Putin last week held the first meeting of a new government council charged with ensuring military supplies, the Kremlin said “problems with equipment continue to exist”.

The biggest unknown is the severity of the coming winter, security officials and military experts said, and whether the temperature drops to zero with lots of rain and mud, or to -10C when everything freezes.

Russian president Vladimir Putin
Russian president Vladimir Putin, second left, inspects a military training camp. Recruits say they have been sent to Ukraine with insufficient equipment and preparation © Mikhael Klimentyev/SPUTNIK/KREMLIN POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

A warm winter would blunt Putin’s energy war, while muddy fields would require heavy supply trucks to stick to paved roads to avoid getting bogged down. That would play to Ukrainians’ ability to pick off Russian supply lines and logistics.

Mykola Bieliekov, analyst at Ukraine’s National Institute for Strategic Studies, said Kyiv’s forces could use their “battlefield precision guided munitions advantage to [wear down] Russian forces and make their life at the front more miserable.”

But mud would also limit Ukraine’s ability to mount counter offensives. Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said last week that heavy rain and rough terrain were making Kyiv’s attempt to retake the southern city of Kherson harder than its counter-offensive further north.

By contrast, “a deep freeze will make it possible to move [across] fields and theoretically open a way to offensives”, Bieliekov said.

He added that “sustaining morale through winter was the most important task for both sides . . . There’s a real possibility that Russian forces in the field might cross a point of no return if they’re not properly sustained.”

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