An unhappy new year is looming in Ukraine as a late winter descends upon the killing fields.
A basic fact of war is that it favors the initiative – the attacker, not the defender. Counter-intuitively for many, winter in Russia and Ukraine is a maneuver accelerant that grants multiple advantages to those on the offensive.
With the autumnal operational pause now over and the winter campaign season dawning, both sides’ leaders, soldiers, logisticians and engineers will have new, weather- and fire-related challenges to face.
Russia is massing forces and Ukraine is mastering its widely discussed ammunition shortage. As the ground frosts freeze the mud, which side has the advantage and where are the likely loci of next attack?
Mainstream Western media continue to state that the freezing Ukrainian winter will force an operational slow down. This is a North American-Western European misunderstanding: In Russophone warfare, the campaign seasons are summer and winter.
It is the rasputitsa (“the time without roads”), in spring and autumn, when the ground turns to mud and non-metalled roads turn to lines of swamp that largely obviate maneuver operations.
Granted, tanks, self-propelled artillery and some armored personnel carriers can operate off-road in mud. But their essential wheeled support vehicles – supply trucks, ammunition trucks, fuel tankers, ambulances – cannot.
This seasonal condition – combined with a multiplicity of attacking axes, a lack of overall command and intelligence failures about Ukraine’s willingness to fight – were the factors that doomed Moscow’s offensive in late February and March.
After a failed coup de main operation – a heliborne assault on Hostomel Airport on Kiev’s ring road – Russia’s invading columns were inevitably channeled onto northern Ukraine’s road net. On vulnerable and predictable axes of advance, they made easy targets for anti-tank missiles fired by defenders from roadside ambuscades, as well as for drones and artillery.
Summer, with its dry ground and long days, is the premier campaign season. But for Russians and Ukrainians, well used to harsh winters, frosted ground that permits horse and vehicle columns wide maneuver is almost as ideal.
Indeed, it has been in winter when Russia has won many of its greatest victories.
In the winter 1812, Russian forces harried Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces from the ashes of Moscow, across frozen steppes and into Europe. The Grand Armee was shattered.
In December 1941, a Soviet counterattack using divisions deployed from Siberia saved Moscow, dealt a shock blow to Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht and doomed Nazi Germany to a long, two-front war it could not win.
In November 1942, in a huge pincer operation over snow-covered steppes, Soviet forces punched through the lines of Germany and its allies, surrounding Hitler’s 6th Army in Stalingrad. The Reich would never recover from that defeat.
However, the Russian Army is as well acquainted with incompetent leaders as it is with brilliant commanders; with humiliation as well as glory.
When poorly led and undertrained Soviet forces invaded Finland in November 1939, they were outfought by the skillful defenders and suffered huge losses in men and materiel. Yet, ongoing will and superior numbers eventually enabled Moscow to dictate peace terms.
Why winter favors the attacker
Wars are won by attacking, not defending. Attacking requires movement. While mud halts movement, frost accelerates it.
“The worst thing is mud, especially cold mud: It gets everywhere it is hard just to walk around and do simple tasks, it gets in your clothes, your food, the breech of your guns,” said Steve Tharp, a retired US Army lieutenant colonel who underwent cold weather exercises at the US National Training Center and in the Siberian temperatures of winter Korea. “It is easier once it gets colder, as you can get traction, you can put things on your tires – even tracked vehicles can move easier on frozen ground.”
Winter also generates vulnerabilities for defenders. Fortified positions and trench lines, absent the cover of ground foliage, are easy to spot against snow. Cold demands that patrollers and sentries frequently rotate back to warmed areas where off-duty soldiers crowd together around heat sources.
“Morale is an important intangible and food is huge,” said Douglas Nash, a historian of World War II’s Eastern Front. “Hot food once a day if possible, and plenty of high-caloric meals, goes a long way to keeping grunts in fighting trim.”
This is dangerous. Bunkers can be blacked out, but rest points in the rear – requisitioned buildings, or heated tents – are intensely vulnerable: heat provides light cues for drone and artillery spotters.
“At the National Training Center in the Mojave Desert in December we could see people so far away, we could kill them a long way away,” said Tharp. “In summer, they could blend in.”
In past wars, winter overcast and early darkness obviated much aerial reconnaissance. That is less true with modern technologies that can penetrate cloud cover and pick up the light and heat signatures of both men and vehicles.
Ukraine, scanning the battlefield with NATO’s data-linked satellites and drones that are networked to high-precision weaponry, and accessing location intelligence from unencrypted signals, has proven adept at hitting rear targets. These include Russian command-and-control nodes and ammunition dumps.
In early wintry darkness, in close combat, thermal sights and night vision goggles enable infantry efficiencies. Anecdotal inspection of TV and social media footage, suggests Ukrainian foot soldiers are better equipped with these aids.
Moreover, if an attacker can break through lines and unhinge defenses, retreating troops face perils in the open: It is during retreats which turn into routs that armies suffer their most disastrous casualties.
Winter doubles this danger. Unless defenders have an echeloned series of defensive positions to fall back through, frozen ground makes it difficult, or impossible, to dig new trenches or dugouts. Excavators or explosives can create new fighting positions but are locational giveaways.
Still, attacking in mid-winter is not easy either, especially for mounted units.
Vehicle tracks stand out in snow, exposing attackers massing in jumping-off points to aerial reconnaissance, a problem exacerbated by lack of foliage. “In winter, there is less vegetation to cover your movement,” said Tharp.
Then there are equipment issues.
“Crews have to keep up on their vehicle maintenance, especially fluid levels, track tension, and so on and keeping a fighting compartment heater operational is a big deal,” said Nash, a former armored officer. “Battery maintenance is also critical: If you ignore your batteries, the damn tank might not start when you need it to.”
These factors put pressure on logisticians – an area that Russia failed badly at in the war’s spring maneuver phase, when some columns literally ran out of fuel. Logisticians’ challenges double in winter, as cold-weather anti-freeze and lubricants are required.
Artillery also needs specialist fluids. “If you are using the wrong viscosity recoil fluid in very cold weather, you could experience a mishap that causes the gun to recoil out of battery, which is not a good thing at all,” said Nash.
Advancing infantry require training to manage personal temperatures and clothing. “You burn more energy on the move, and as soon as you stop, that sweat freezes,” Tharp said. “You can’t move in many clothes, and you don’t have time to change them.”
Cold can kill. Small unit leadership is essential, ensuring troops maintain at least one set of dry clothing and monitor for frostbite. “We used to say, ‘Cold is a leadership problem,’” recalled Tharp.
Russian attacks vs Ukrainian attacks
In recent months, Russia has been building massive defense works, especially in the south. It is less clear which side is better prepared to launch a winter attack – and both sides have taken different approaches to offensives.
Since its original assault was defeated in the north, Russia has attempted – to the surprise of many – none of the sweeping “deep penetration” maneuver operations so beloved of Soviet/Russian doctrine.
Even when northern and southern pincers were poised to trap Ukrainian concentrations in the Donbas this summer, the Russians proved unable to close them. This may have been due to degraded command, control and communications, or leadership problems.
Instead, they prosecuted simpler operations: snail’s pace, grinding assaults on Ukrainian towns and cities that leveraged Russia’s powerful tactical artillery.
This World War I-style fighting has been raging for months around Bakhmut. This low-skill, artillery/infantry combat can be prosecuted amid mud, but Russian units have been unable to encircle the city.
Ukrainians have proven more capable at maneuver.
in their late summer-early autumn counter-offensive in the northeast, and subsequently in Kherson, they utilized infiltration tactics that saw multiple small units probing Russian lines. When gaps were discovered, the attackers launched swift exploitations that advanced deep and fast, unhinging defenses that were necessarily undermanned along the vast battlefront.
But while Ukrainians recaptured vast swathes of terrain, they did not surround and capture large numbers of Russians who were able to “roll with the punch” retreating into strategic depth. Even when their back was against the lower Dniepr at Kherson, Russian forces executed a tricky controlled retreat.
Any Ukrainian assault looks set to be bloodier now.
Firstly, satellite imagery shows Russian forces have dug inter-linked defensive positions across much of their front, particularly in the south. Secondly, having lost so much territory in the northeast and southwest, Russian units are now more concentrated, and thereby effective.
Who will attack where?
The questions facing Moscow are twofold.
Firstly: Whether, after a mobilization of 300,000 reservists to reinforce its professional expeditionary force – which is not believed to have numbered more than 200,000 soldiers in Ukraine, many of whom have become casualties – it can hold a front some 700 kilometers long.
Secondly: Whether this combination of battered professionals and newly inducted reservists have the necessary unit cohesion, command and control capabilities and up-to-date armored vehicles to launch an ambitious offensive.
Senior Ukrainian officials have told British journalists that they anticipate a major Russian attack in January or February, perhaps deploying 150,000 bayonets.
That could be a ploy to win more Western support. But if not, where might Russia attack next? While combat rages in the east and south, there is intense speculation, now that Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Belarus, of a new attack from the north.
Storming a metropolis as vast as Kiev looks highly unlikely: Russia lacks infantry and urban warfare is a force multiplier for defenders. However, a southward thrust from Belarus to sever the weapons supply routes that lead from Poland though western Ukraine to the frontlines looks dangerously promising.
But as continued slogging against Bakhmut makes clear, Moscow also seeks to take the remaining areas of the Donbas. Given its dwindling battlefield successes, Russia may simply continue aerial attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure, consolidate territory and pin down its enemy in the east.
“I guess the Russians will be happy enough if the frontline remains the same until February,” said Gastone Breccia, a military historian at the University of Pavia. “They can keep pressure on Bakhmut to wear down Ukrainian resources, losing their ‘expendables.’’
But Kiev, too, is muscling up.
Constantly restated fears over ammunition supply have subsided. Kiev, in November, at last started production of Soviet-style 122mm and 152mm shells for its legacy equipment. While both the UK and US governments have both ordered new supplies of NATO-class 155mm shells, South Korean manufacturing power has been harnessed by the US, which is reportely acquiring 100,000 155mm shells.
Kiev announced a national mobilization at the very start of the war, so retains the manpower – and arguably, the morale – advantage. It also has allies: In addition to the rotations it is training in western Ukraine, some 10,000 troops have learned basic skills in the UK through September, while the US has trained around 3,000 specialists.
Ukraine is defending Bakhmut and its remaining territory in southern Donetsk. Combat is also underway around a Russian salient in Kreminna, Luhansk. If that ground and a chunk of a strategic highway is taken, it would massively hamper Russian supply movements.
Much pundit discussion centers around a major operation to punch through and seize Melitopol in the south. That would chop Russia’s forces in the south into two, and cut the critical land corridor from Rostov to Crimea.
But that would require a huge, deep assault into a defended area. And the attackers would face potential Russian counterattacks from both flanks.
At least one expert is skeptical.
“There is too much talking about an imminent Ukrainian offensive towards Melitopol, but it is so obvious a move, strategically, that surprise is unachievable and it would maybe end up in a costly fight against prepared positions,” said Breccia “I wonder if it could be a feint ahead of a better chance to pierce Russian lines elsewhere.”
Follow this writer on Twitter @ASalmonSeoul