Winter is Coming
Winter is coming in Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine is faced with the choice of digging in and waiting to renew its offensive in the spring or fighting on through the weather and maintaining its momentum and success. Since it launched its counter-offensive in August, it has reclaimed some 74,000 square miles of its territory from the Russian invader while inflicting horrific casualties on the Russian army. Not without cost though, since the war began Russia and Ukraine are both believed to have suffered casualties in the range of 100,ooo, each. Ukrainian casualties are probably lower in terms of the number of dead because they have been much better at evacuating and caring for the wounded than Russia has.
Wars have their seasons and winter is definitely not the best one. As Napoleon learned during his retreat from Moscow, as both the Germans and the Russians learned in WWII, as we learned during the Ardennes Offensive and in the battle for the Chosin Reservoir in Korea. Fighting in winter is very different than in other parts of the year.
For all its gains so far, Ukraine cannot allow the Russians to dig in and fortify, train, and reequip its army for months before resuming operations in the spring. A lull in the fighting until April means the suffering of Ukrainian citizens in the occupied areas will be prolonged. It would mean months of Russian missiles landing on Ukrainian cities and towns. A lack of progress for months could mean a loss of interest by the West in continuing aid to Ukraine.
The lines become static and will turn into a nightmare of shelling and counter-shelling by both sides which will sap the fighting spirit of the troops of both armies.
Ukraine has no choice but to go on fighting through the winter.
A Winter War is Hell
In a winter war, mobility and logistical support are limited, and roads and runways have to be kept clear of snow and ice to move supplies in the rear and have to be cleared as well when advancing Does Ukraine have the equipment to do this?
That mobility reduction applies to the movement of armored vehicles as well. In WWII, winter’s greatest effect on the German army was to limit the mobility of their tanks which had narrow tracks and low ground clearance, causing them to bog down in deep snows. The Wehrmacht’s successes against the Soviets were based on the principles of mobile warfare, tanks moving fast across open, flat country(Russia has a million square miles of that) With their tank forces immobilized by heavy snow, it became an infantry fight. Germany had failed to plan for a winter war in Russia, believing that it could win by late fall, and they almost did before being stopped just short of Moscow. Winter came early in 1942 and the first heavy snow fell in December. The failure to plan for a winter war meant German troops did not have heavy winter clothing; coats, hats, and gloves. Once these items were produced, they could not get them to the front quickly enough because of the difficulty of supplying by road. Most German units would not receive winter clothing until February of the next year. To make due, German troops would strip warm winter clothing from the Russian soldiers they killed in battle.
Ukraine is said to have upwards of 100,000 horses of various breeds, among them is the Hucul Ponie which a small but very strong and tough breed of horse that endure winter weather in Ukraine very well. During WWII the most effective means of transport over frozen ground were sleighs drawn by these ponies in singles or pairs. These ponies moved troops and supplies and evacuated casualties for both the German and Soviet armies. I expect you will see them return to the battlefield on the Ukrainian side during this war as Ukraine’s approach to the conflict is “Whatever it takes to win.”
Hell is a Cold, Wet Place
In winter, the war belongs to the infantry, the foot-slogging, dog-faced soldier who was winning battles for 2,000 years before the Romans took up the gladius and shield and conquered an empire with its own heavy infantry. Cold weather is the dread of the infantry. Infantry trying to move through deep snow quickly become exhausted. Forget about rapid movement across open ground on foot, it’s impossible in snow up to your knees. During the day his feet get wet and then freeze at night. He’s wearing too much clothing to move freely, he fumbles with his weapons and ammunition wearing heavy gloves. He can’t touch the cold steel of his weapons without worrying his skin will freeze to it instantly. His weapons misfire and jam more often, the mortar rounds he fires to defend his position may not go off in snow or when they do go off the snow muffles their explosive effect. If he should fall into a frozen-over pond or stream he can be dead from frostbite by morning.
Trying to dig trenches and pits in the frozen ground is like breaking rock.
His food is cold, he cannot clean himself, and urinating and defecating is an act of sheer will outdoors in the snow.
The absence of leaves on trees makes concealment more difficult for him and his unit’s vehicles. Drones will enjoy much better visibility.
Thermal sights work much better given the contrast between warm humans and vehicles and the ground.
For the crews manning the guns and rocket artillery, they will find their ranges are reduced by the colder and there for denser air. Rockets and missiles suffer degraded ranges and speeds as well because their fuel does not burn at hot in freezing temps.
The days are much shorter and the nights are much longer.
If he is wounded on the battlefield, he may die from exposure before he can be evacuated. Along with frostbite, the infantryman is also at much greater risk of pneumonia and influenza. Trenchfoot as well. He will often be a walking casualty suffering from several conditions at once.
One benefit of the weather is that mines already placed in the ground and now under snow will not work very well. The snow on top of them serves to disperse the weight of a man walking over them so the pressure detonator fails to engage. The thaw and freeze cycle of winter will also freeze the triggering mechanism of the mine as well. There are hundreds of thousands of mines buried in Ukraine right now and they will become much less dangerous during winter.
The goals and objectives of a winter offensive will change too
Most of the fighting will consist of limited movement of a few miles and centered on objectives that can provide shelter for your troops. The war will move into the towns, villages, and cities of Ukraine. During the fall offensive, Ukrainian troops tended to bypass, cut off and encircle towns and cities to avoid the casualties of street-to-street fighting. The Russians would either withdraw to avoid being cut off or surrender when it happened.
Now, it will be a series of small battles between units moving from a cluster of buildings they can stay warm and dry in, and attempting to dislodge the Russians from their warm and dry buildings a few miles away. If the enemy withdraws and sets their shelters on fire, the infantry will then dig into the heat softened ground and get ready to pursue them the next morning. Troops without shelter in winter rapidly lose their fighting ability as they attempt to take care of their most basic survival needs, to stay warm and dry. Tanks and armored fighting vehicles will take a back seat to small units of infantry fighting local battles using drones to try and call artillery down on each other.
Ukraine is at a disadvantage here in terms of the number of guns and missile launchers it has but enjoys the advantage of much better accuracy and a shorter time to engage targets. Russia’s advantage in having more guns is offset by the fact that they require more ammunition, and therefore more trucks and fuel to keep them supplied. They will have some problems keeping them supplied with reduced mobility on the roads and trails of Ukraine.
Since the weather will dominate conditions on the battlefield, the Ukrainians and the Russians will also change the order of priority for targets they send shells and missiles at. If Ukraine is smart(and they have been so far) they will target ammo dumps less and target Russian field kitchens more to deprive their enemies of a hot meal. If a squad of Russian troops starts a fire to stay warm, it will bring down a mortar or shell on it. Soon the Russians will realize they can’t light a fire to stay warm. Ukrainian troops will hopefully make use of charcoal for their own fires as it gives off very little smoke and flame compared to wood fires.
Ask just about any infantryman if Hell is a hot, fiery place and he will answer, “No, Hell is a cold, wet place.”
Strike at the ability of Russian troops to stay warm and fed and winter will do much of the work for Ukraine. Frostbite casualties will soar dramatically, we are talking about amputations of fingers, toes, hands, and feet. These are not injuries that allow you to return to the fighting later after recovery, assuming they even make it to a hospital to recover.
Historians will not report that the Russian army fought well in the late summer and autumn of 2022(at least not Russian historians). Russia seems unable to provide its own troops with clothing, shelter, hot food, working equipment, and medical care in good weather. This will not become easier in winter.
In November 1941, General Eduard Wagner, Quartermaster of the German Army worried over the war with Russia as winter approached, “We are at the end of our resources in both personnel and materiel. We are about to be confronted by the dangers of deep winter.” That statement does not describe the situation of the Ukrainian army right now, but it sure sounds like the Russian army’s condition right now, doesn’t it?
In contrast, Ukraine is making preparations for the winter campaign, The UK has pledged 25,000 sets of cold-weather clothing, 12,000 sleeping bags, and 150 heated tents to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Ukrainian troops that are trained in England were just sent home with 7,000 sets of cold weather gear. Cold weather countries like Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, and even Latvia are also involved in the effort to get artic gear into the hands of Ukrainian troops. The US is as well, though we should not expect to see Ukrainian soldiers wearing US army issue cold weather gear because of the optics of it. Russia could claim US troops were on the ground fighting in Ukraine. Included in the $600 million aid package sent by the US announced in September was a provision for cold weather gear.
Russia for its part will continue to attack civilian infrastructure in Ukraine to deprive its citizens of water, heat, and electricity. After the war is over Ukraine would be smart to try and bury as many of its powerlines as possible to shield them from future attacks. The goal of the Russians will be to break the will of the Ukrainian people and erode support for the war, hoping to force Zelensky to the negotiating table. This strategy seems doomed to fail for several reasons. Russia is unable to produce or acquire enough missiles(thousands of them) to mount a concerted campaign to permanently disable Ukraine’s utilities. In their most recent attack of 85 missiles, only 15 may have reached their targets. War has an economy to it, and expending 85 missiles to hit only 15 targets is spending a lot of money for very little gain. Within days, Ukraine will fix the damage by restoring power which actually gives confidence to Ukrainian civilians, rather their sap their will to resist.
Russia will attempt to dig in and hold the positions it has rather than launch a winter offensive of its own. Its own supply lines and manpower are overstretched as it is and it will have problems keeping its own troops fed and warm through the winter. Ukraine is a country fully mobilizing for war, while Russia is not. It has not declared war on Ukraine formally, which prevents them from the full mobilization of its own resources and manpower to defeat Ukraine. Even if it did, Russian industry may not be able to equip and supply an army of 1 million additional soldiers, civilians who would also be leaving jobs in the private sector that feed the Russian economy that it needs to sustain the war.
As for the fighting ability of Russian troops, the Twitter post below gives a pretty good indication of their training and discipline. Here you see approximately 8 Ukrainian troops dismount from an APC and in a few moments route a Russian force about three times as large from well-prepared and situated fighting positions on the other side of a concrete culvert. Ukrainians seem very willing to die to restore their country even as Russians seem most unwilling to die to take it from them.
This is insane.
An outnumbered Ukrainian unit storms a Russian position.
Nothing to be said here but.. f*cking heros. pic.twitter.com/R467Ga9ClE
— Jay in Kyiv (@JayinKyiv) November 14, 2022