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KYIV — He helped defeat Napoleon’s Grande Armée and Hitler’s Wehrmacht. General Winter should always be a good friend to Russian forces.
But this year his loyalty is less certain.
President Vladimir Putin can no longer count on Russia’s old allies now that the Kremlin’s soldiers in Ukraine are the demoralized attackers facing raging sleet and snow and temperatures plunging to -20 Celsius and below.
Pundits and military analysts had suggested for months that winter would bring a lull in fighting on Ukraine’s front lines – but it is becoming increasingly clear that both sides will try to press home advantage in the cold, each bringing their dueling generals . It’s General Winter versus General Frostbite. The Russian plan is to demoralize Ukrainian civilians by knocking out their electricity and heat, while the Ukrainians want to launch commando attacks and train their artillery on poorly equipped Russian drafteeswhich lacks warm winter equipment and hot food.
Although the pace of fighting is generally expected to slow, there has been no slowdown in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk despite snow showers and freezing temperatures.
“The fighting is going on day and night, regardless of the weather,” combat medic and former Ukrainian lawmaker Yegor Firsov told POLITICO from the front lines. “Now I am near Bakhmut. The situation here is very complicated. It changes every day and swings like a pendulum – from our successes and euphoria when we advance to the difficult situation when the enemy advances,” he wrote.
With a touch of bravado he added: “Yesterday it snowed, we were glad because there is nothing worse than freezing rain.”
Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense has also made it clear that the plan is to keep up the pressure during the winter. “Those who are now talking about a possible ‘pause in hostilities’ due to freezing temperatures in winter have probably never sunbathed in January on the southern coast of Crimea,” Ukraine’s defense minister mockingly tweeted on Sunday, hinting at Ukrainian ambitions to take the fight to the peninsula Russia illegally annexed in 2014.
Of course, General Winter has not always been good for Russia. The Finns turned their sights on the Russians during their Winter War in 1940, outmaneuvering the leaden Russians as they glided nimbly across the snow on skis to launch light guerrilla attacks.
The Ukrainians hope to inflict similar damage. Wiretaps analyzed by the Conflict Intelligence Team, an investigative group, reveal how mobilized troops are already complaining about the lack of basic equipment – let alone winter kit – and the conditions they endure, including no hot food for days.
So far, the action is crumbling across a number of fronts. Nothing signals a quiet winter.
According to Kateryna Stepanenko of the Institute for the Study of War, which has monitored fighting using open sources: “The Russians are resuming and intensifying their offensive operations southwest of Donetsk oblast [province].” She added that they were using hardened paratroopers released by the withdrawal from around the southern city of Kherson.
The Ukrainians have also shifted forces to strengthen their line, said Nick Reynolds of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, a security think tank that has conducted operational analysis for Ukraine’s General Staff.
Reynolds added that the Ukrainians also want to push the Russians on the east bank of the Dnipro River 15 to 20 kilometers further from the recently liberated Kherson to stop Russian artillery bombardments. This week, both sides have traded barrages of fire across the Dnipro River, with the city of Kherson reverberating with explosions, prompting Ukrainian authorities to offer civilian evacuations.
Reynolds also suspects that the Russians may throw in a wild card by building up “forces on the Belarusian border north of Kiev again in an attempt to draw Ukrainian forces away from the front lines in the south and east.”
A Ukrainian security source, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media, told POLITICO that Russian warplanes appeared to be testing Ukrainian air defenses along the border. Russian military bloggers on Telegram say the Ukrainians are setting up several border observation posts equipped with electronic eavesdropping and sowing minefields north of Chernihiv.
Meanwhile, fighting is fierce around Svatove-Kreminna and Bilohorivka in Luhansk, where the Ukrainians have identified weaknesses in Russian defenses. “In the Luhansk region, we are slowly moving forward as we fight,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly televised update on Sunday.
Cold or mild?
The Ukrainians are in two minds whether they want a severe winter or a mild winter for their campaigns. A mild season would help cushion Ukraine’s civilian population from the consequences of Russia’s strikes on the country’s power grid. But it would also mean muddy conditions – known as bezdorizhzhia (waylessness) in Ukrainian and rasputitsa in Russian, making moving troops and armor difficult for them as well as the Russians.
And it is the Ukrainians who will quickly build on the momentum they have gained in recent weeks with their stunning victories around Kharkiv in the north-east and most recently in Kherson in the south. The advance in Kherson has brought Crimea within range of their missiles.
A cold winter with frozen terrain would help both sides maneuver – but freezing conditions would likely take their toll on Russian troops and their shoddy equipment. Tanks and vehicles could no longer be hidden under leafless trees. Last winter, when they tried to advance on Kiev, the Russians were plagued by mechanical breakdowns due to low-quality manufacturing and a failure – like the Wehrmacht – to thoroughly winterize their tanks and armored vehicles.
The Institute for the Study of War agrees that General Frostbite is likely to favor the Ukrainians. In a recent assessment, the Washington-based think tank said Russian troops will be at a disadvantage. “Winter weather could disproportionately harm poorly equipped Russian forces in Ukraine,” ISW said. The Russian Defense Ministry has publicized efforts to better train and equip its troops, most likely a move ISW interprets as an attempt to “allay public discontent” in Russia with the conditions Russian soldiers are expected to endure. Recently, graduates from Rostov posted a video on Telegram complaining about the lack of proper training and equipment and food. “We pay for our food out of pocket,” they said.
Among other things, Russian forces have reportedly started receiving Iranian-made flak jackets and helmets. But they are unlikely to match the quality of the clothing and equipment Ukraine’s Western allies have rushed to Ukrainian troops as the weather turns cold.
The British Ministry of Defense recently reported that it had shipped 195,000 winter kits with more on the way; Other Western partners are also supplying uniforms, mobile generators and tents to 200,000 soldiers – including Lithuania, Germany, Denmark, the USA, Sweden and Finland. Canada supplies Ukraine with half a million winter uniforms.
Back to basics
On the civilian home front, the Ukrainians are scrambling to defeat General Winter by trying to rebuild stockpiles of spare parts to patch up the battered power grid, and are scrambling for thousands upon thousands of diesel and thermal generators. They are also calling for more air defense systems to prevent damage inflicted by the Russians in the first place – and lobbying by Ukrainian officials in Western capitals, including Washington, for US Patriot missiles will intensify.
Ukrainian national leaders, regional governors and city mayors are doing their best to brace for winter. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko prepares his city to endure a cold, dark winter and hope to avoid any mass evacuation. He is urging Kyiv’s more than 3 million residents to store enough water, food and supplies for the winter. And his administration is preparing about 1,000 centers where residents can go to warm and feed themselves.
Lviv’s energetic mayor, Andriy Sadovyi, is alarmed by the Russian target of a power transmission station near the Rivne nuclear power plant, 200 kilometers northeast of Lviv, which harbors other potential horrors.
Sadovyi frantically plans to keep not only himself but his entire western Ukrainian city warm throughout the winter season – and he hopes to have around 6,000 shelters up and running; many will have wood stoves, other portable diesel generators. “We store a lot of firewood, and we have bought huge supplies of oil and diesel. We have to prepare for when the city has to live without electricity,” he said.
He even has to take the traditional approach in his own office. He has had two antique – and very large – ceramic stoves in his office set up.
“Help me feed the tribes,” he asked when POLITICO visited him last week at his town hall.
“These fireplaces had not been used for about a hundred years, until now.”