As winter sets in, Ukrainian battlefields show little sign of freezing

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When the first snow fell on Ukraine last week, the Ukrainian army launched a attack on Russian positions around Kreminna in a renewed – albeit so far unsuccessful – attempt to recapture the eastern city.

At the same time, there were allegedly Ukrainian special forces pushing back Russian troops on the islands and marshes that make up Kinburn Spit, a strategic peninsula on the left bank of the Dnipro River near annexed Crimea.

The ongoing fierce fighting on the southern and eastern fronts suggests there will be no slowdown in major military operations as the weather worsens and temperatures drop below freezing – despite predictions by some observers that the conflict could slow to a stalemate by the end of the year.

“I don’t expect a significant drop in Ukrainian ground operations going into the winter,” said Konrad Muzyka, a defense analyst at Poland’s Rochan Consulting.

When the ground eventually freezes, it could even provide Kiev with an opportunity for new attacks — especially in its contested eastern regions, where wet and muddy terrain is currently impassable for wheeled vehicles.

“The ideal time for a blitz in Ukraine is when the ground is frozen solid,” said William Alberque, a defense analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Kyiv has sought to maintain its momentum after Russia ordered an embarrassing retreat from the city of Kherson earlier this month.

At the same time, Russian forces appear to be trying to consolidate their positions amid political pressure for another offensive.

“Both sides will be willing and able to conduct ground strikes,” Muzyka said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meets with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Kiev.  President of Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meets with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Kiev.
President of Ukraine

“On the one hand, Ukraine has the momentum and the ability to push; on the other hand, Russia has access to a huge amount of manpower through its mobilized reservists.”

Ukrainian forces are likely to turn their attention to Zaporizhzhia region and the northern part of Luhansk region, according to Muzyka.

While Kyiv is seeing further military advances, there are no signs that Russian military leaders expect fighting to slow down in the winter months.

Russian forces have been trying to consolidate their positions in recent weeks, digging in across Ukraine’s south and fighting to hold on to strategically advantageous positions.

“Russia is preparing defensive positions and trenches, especially in the southern part around Zaporizhzhia and the part of Kherson [region] they are occupying, so I don’t understand that they think the war will stop,” said Dara Massicot, a defense analyst at the US-based Rand Corporation.

Defenses are even being erected in areas relatively far removed from the current fighting, including in annexed Crimea and Russia proper.

“Fortification work is being carried out on the territory of Crimea,” says the Governor of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, wrote on social media last week. And pictures shared Tuesday by Vyacheslav Gladkov, governor of Russia’s Belgorod region, showed the excavation of deep trenches and concrete pyramids located on key roads.

Moscow has claimed some modest military victories this month around the small eastern town of Bakhmut – a prize that, if seized, would give Moscow’s forces an opportunity to attack the major Ukrainian cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.

Winter conditions will present a number of challenges – from the need to convert vehicles to adjustment for artillery range – for both armies, according to Sam Cranny-Evans, a military expert at the London-based think tank Royal United Services Institute.

And the intense cold – which can reach below minus 30 degrees Celsius in parts of Ukraine – can negatively affect morale in both armies.

“Frostbite and hypothermia are real possibilities in Ukraine,” Cranny-Evans said. “Cold soldiers suffer a reduction in morale and cognitive function.”

Defensive structures are being built in Russia's Belgorod region.

Defensive structures are being built in Russia’s Belgorod region.

Many analysts seem to agree that Ukraine has the best chance of getting ahead in the winter months by using Western supplies of equipment and warm clothing.

In particular, the lack of foliage in winter will mean less cover for Russian forces, allowing Ukraine to better utilize its long-range artillery systems.

“Ukraine is ready for a winter fight,” Alberque said.

But experts are also quick to point out that Russia’s mobilization of reservists this fall has brought tens of thousands of new soldiers to the front – and the Kremlin is likely to push its generals for military success after a run of defeat.

“Russia has great manpower potential after withdrawing from Kherson,” Muzyka said. “We’re looking at 150,000 to 200,000 Russian men currently being trained.”

And Russia probably will become better its missile barrages on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure — a campaign that has already caused power outages and heating problems for millions of civilians in cities across the country.

Some analysts predict that Moscow could regain the upper hand as winter draws in.

“Through the early part of winter, Russia is at its most vulnerable,” Massicot said. “But over time … the dynamic may begin to shift.”

According to Muzyka, Russian generals may even see a new offensive in the first half of next year.

“Sooner or later we’re going to see bigger Russian pushes,” he said.

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