Groups of weary conscripts huddling around campfires in their icy trenches. Tattered army fatigues failing to keep out the sub-zero chill, while military equipment malfunctions and freezes. A gruelling winter war like that hasn’t been seen in Europe since the Soviet Red Army pushed back Nazi German forces along the Eastern Front in 1943. Now though, it’s fast becoming a prospect for the Russian soldiers invading Ukraine.
This week will see temperatures in the contested east of the country drop consistently below zero for the first time since the early months of the conflict. In February, Moscow’s forces were on the march, their best-trained, best-equipped personnel making a furious beeline towards major Ukrainian cities, and with the prospect of warmer months ahead. Nine months on, the vast majority of Russia’s professional army has now been scarred by combat, with entire formations destroyed, as seasoned fighters are replaced by fresh-eyed draftees. And now, it’s getting cold.
Conventional military wisdom holds that wars slow down in the winter, particularly in the frigid conditions of Eastern Europe. At the best of times, Moscow’s commanders have struggled to co-ordinate massive battlefield operations, linking up the ground forces with airpower, naval support and logistical supply chains. As the weather starts to limit the amount of time that its jaded soldiers can spend outside, and increases the demand for fuel and heating equipment, they will have to act fast to avoid leaving their troops to battle frostbite as well as their foes.
The military picture isn’t entirely clear though. As intelligence reports came in earlier this year, cautioning Russian President Vladimir Putin was poised to launch an attack, many analysts claimed that it would have to take place before the weather warmed up – with tanks operating better on frozen ground. While armoured onslaughts have continued regardless of the muddy conditions, it remains to be seen whether changing conditions favour one form of warfare over another.
Meanwhile, Ukraine has been getting ready for winter to change the game, pushing its Western allies to supply more and more anti-air systems to protect its civilians and infrastructure from frequent attacks by warplanes and rockets, which would continue even if other combat operations grind to a halt. With the Russians increasingly targeting power and heating grids, entire cities have been left in the dark and the cold – a problem that becomes only more pressing with freezing temperatures on the horizon.
At the same time, the Ukrainians have become experts in reversing the damage caused by missile and drone strikes. Images of craters in roads repaired overnight went viral last month after the Kremlin ordered yet another massive barrage, while the heating director of frontline Ukrainian city Mykolaiv told Canadian journalist Neil Hauer that, thanks to his team’s work, “since the start of the war, the longest power outage here has been just five hours.”
Yet winter presents another problem for Kyiv. Since the war started, Western nations have moved to cut off the flow of Russian gas to Europe – and the flow of European money it brings back to Moscow. While the EU and the UK have moved to secure alternative supplies, with Norway, Azerbaijan and a number of other nations stepping up production of oil and gas to meet the shortfall, energy supplies are still looking precarious as the switch takes place. Predictions this winter could be warmer than anticipated have brought some relief to governments warning of potential shortages and blackouts, but severe disruption could easily distract the public from the war Ukraine and destabilise some of its closest allies.
A growing number of mainstream politicians are already seeking to normalise criticism of the West’s support for Kyiv in the conflict. French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen ran unsuccessfully for her country’s top job earlier this year with a warning that ordinary people would suffer as a result of the fossil fuel embargoes.
A number of US Republicans have echoed the same pro-Kremlin stance, with Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green insisting “not another cent” would be sent to Ukraine if her party controls the legislature. JD Vance, a controversial conservative candidate campaigning to become a Senator in Ohio, has also publicly stated he doesn’t “really care what happens to Ukraine,” calling for Americans to worry about their own circumstances first and foremost.
With the US midterm elections being held today, the popular vote is a tough test for Western solidarity, and for President Joe Biden’s virtually unprecedented lend lease programme that has helped keep Kyiv from falling into the Kremlin’s grasp. Meanwhile, notorious oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin – the man behind Russia’s notorious Wagner Group mercenary outfit, admitted in a statement this week that his country has “interfered, is interfering and will continue to interfere” in American elections, highlighting just how seriously Putin’s inner circle take the battle playing out in Washington.
For Putin, winter may bring a much-needed lull in the fighting that will allow his troops to train and resupply, preparing for another all-out offensive in the spring. If and when that happens, Ukraine will be looking Westwards for support – and hoping its allies haven’t gone into total hibernation.
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