This autumn is extremely warm, and yet the approaching winter is already having an impact on the war in Ukraine. In recent weeks it has started to rain in the south and the black fertile soil around the city of Kherson has turned to mud. The wet weather and difficult terrain will make the advance towards Kherson more difficult than in the northeast, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksi Reznikov said this week. A repeat of September’s lightning offensive seems out of the question in the south.

    In the coming weeks, conditions on the battlefield will only become more difficult. In the eastern Donbas it is still a pleasant 12 degrees during the day, but next week the temperature will drop to freezing point at night – not very pleasant for the soldiers in their trenches.

    Dick Zandee, defense specialist at the Clingendael Institute, closely follows the rapidly changing conditions on the battlefield. “I have been told that the soil in the Donbas is already quite swampy.”

    stalemate

    The coming winter will play a major role in the war in Ukraine. Some military analysts predict that ‘General Winter’ will lead to a stalemate between Ukrainian and Russian troops in the field, but Zandee says the picture is “more varied” than that. “The winter will certainly not lead to a complete standstill of the fighting,” said the defense specialist.

    Snow and ice have often played a decisive role in Eastern European military history. In 1812, the rapidly settling winter ruined Napoleon’s Grande Armée on his retreat from Moscow. During the Winter War of 1939, the Finnish defenders proved better adapted to the Arctic conditions in Karelia and wreaked havoc on the attacking Soviet soldiers. During the 1941-1944 siege of Leningrad, however, the frozen Lake Ladoga was the only supply route and the enclosed city could only be supplied in winter.

    A man from Russian-occupied Kherson has arrived by bus in the town of Dzhankoi in Crimea.
    Photo Alexei Pavlisjak/Reuters

    So it just depends, says Dick Zandee. “When the winter is very severe and the ground freezes, you can maneuver well with heavy armored vehicles on caterpillar tracks. But if it continues with a few nights of frost and a hard layer on the mud, you will sink irrevocably.”

    In late February, during the beginning of the war, the Russian tanks had to stay on the roads because of the swampy terrain and became an easy target for Ukrainian teams with anti-tank missiles – “sitting ducks”, says Zandee. Wet weather therefore makes major offensive operations with armored vehicles difficult. But the war is not all out in the open, and the street fighting in the outskirts of Kherson will be fought by infantry. In a city war, winter is not decisive, although the “resilience” of the foot soldier “who dies of cold” will quickly diminish. For the deployment of (missile) artillery, the key weapon of the war, the weather certainly does not play a role: it does not matter whether it is freezing when firing a HIMARS missile.

    I understand that the soil in the Donbas is already quite swampy

    All things considered, the coming winter will sooner play into the hands of the defending party (the Russians) than the offensive-minded Ukrainians, Zandee thinks. On the other hand, NATO has thought about good winter equipment for Ukrainian soldiers, from thermal underwear to radiant heaters. The kit of the Russian soldiers mobilized — some recruits wrap their feet in cotton rags in the absence of socks — is “shocking,” says Zandee. „If you consider that the Russian armed forces consist of an active and a mobilisable component [een beroepsleger aangevuld met reservisten]then it is unbelievable that they are not able to provide material and equipment.”

    Conservative strategy

    Russia is capitalizing on the approaching winter with massive “strategic” bombing of Ukraine’s energy and electricity supplies, leaving civilians without heating and power. But on the battlefield, the new Russian commander General Sergei Surovikin appears to be opting for a conservative strategy, focusing in the coming months on holding on to captured territory.

    A boy evacuated from Russian-occupied Kherson waits near the town of Olesjky near Kherson to continue his journey to Crimea.
    Photo Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

    In recent weeks, the Russians have begun withdrawing heavy equipment and troops from Kherson – presumably to reinforce the front elsewhere. Fighters from the Wagner mercenary army, which operates independently of the Russian forces, still make dogged efforts to take the strategic position of Bachmoet in the Donbas, but are constantly thrown back. The ingestion of Bachmoet would be a psychological boost, but in fact the Russians are reckoning with new defeats. Behind the current front line, Wagner mercenaries are building a second line of defense with concrete so-called dragon’s teeth, a tank ditch and prefab concrete bunkers.


    In an easterly direction the ‘Wagner Line’ follows the current front, but in the north it runs along the river Siversky Donets, just above the city of Luhansk. The Russians seem to be taking into account a scenario in which they have to give up a large part of the northern Donbas. As long as Western aid continues to arrive, Zandee says, Ukraine will have an advantage – despite the obstacles presented by the winter weather.

    Also read:Ukraine’s grain deal was not a cure for famine

    Drone attacks

    But after the umpteenth series of drone attacks, Kiev was left in the dark this week. President Zelensky capitalized on this, a speech he recorded outside next to a downed Iranian Shahed-163. Behind the Ukrainian president lay the darkened capital, but Zelensky, as always, found the right words for his citizens: “Good evening, warriors of the light.”

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