Frozen Ground and Nowhere To Hide. Why Russia Faces Brutal Winter War

“The armed forces of Ukraine are not thinking of stopping,” declared Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov on Sunday as he discussed an apparent lull in military activity along the freezing front lines in the south and east of the country.

A fall of successful counteroffensives—a surprise and lightning drive through Kharkiv Oblast followed by a long-awaited, more gradual liberation of all the land west of the Dnieper river including the city of Kherson—have given way to muddy and relatively static trench warfare along much of the front.

Localized assaults, special forces activity and probing operations continue against the backdrop of an ever-present artillery drumroll. In Donetsk Oblast, both sides are locked in hellish bloodletting over the city of Bakhmut despite its limited strategic value.

But in general, commanders on both sides are watching and waiting for the winter freeze to open a new window for offensive operations. “Using the moment, when the ground is firmer, I am convinced that we will resume our counteroffensives and the campaign on liberating our land,” Reznikov said on Sunday.

Destroyed Russian military vehicles are pictured in front of St. Michael’s Cathedral in central Kyiv on November 27.

Ukrainian leaders are confident of eventual success despite the many challenges they face. Operating on home ground with NATO weapons and intelligence support, Kyiv’s better-trained and better-equipped troops have repeatedly demonstrated their tactical and strategic superiority over the Russian invaders.

The deep freeze expected in mid-January will make roads and even waterways passable; a golden opportunity for the mechanized units hoping to once again drive deep behind Russian lines and precipitate another military collapse. Meanwhile, Russian troops dug into the cold ground will have “nothing to hide [under],” according to one Ukrainian soldier who spoke to NPR.

Ukrainian artillery and special forces teams are preparing the ground for the next push, targeting Russian command centers, supply depots and logistics routes. It’s not clear where the hammer will fall, as Ukraine’s military has made secrecy and surprise key elements of their strategy.

Russian ‘Disarray’

A senior US military official told journalists on Monday: “This invasion began in February … which is right in the middle of winter. So, certainly we know that the Ukrainians can fight and fight well under these conditions.”

Roman Kostenko—one of the famous “cyborg” Ukrainian troops who defended Donetsk airport in 2014, a veteran of the years-long fight against Russian-directed forces in the Donbas and now a member of Ukraine’s parliament—told Newsweek that the weather would make offensive action difficult for both sides.

“If there is a cold snap, typically it’s better to be on the defensive rather than to be trying to gain new ground,” said Kostenko, speaking from close to the front lines in the south of the country, where he recently took part in the liberation of his home city of Kherson. “If the Russians decide to push forward, despite the current cold and muddy conditions, they will struggle.”

“Another issue is reconnaissance, using drones and navigation. So these factors hardly strengthen their position. What they will likely do is to double down on their numerical advantage, trying to brute-force their way through with sheer numbers, regardless of the weather and conditions. But it will get harder for them.”

Stopping operations through the winter months would allow Moscow to reinforce its troops with newly mobilized recruits and prepare defensive positions on the land its forces still occupy. The respite is much-needed.

Mark Voyger, a former special adviser for Russian and Eurasian affairs to the commanding general of US Army Europe, told Newsweek that the Russian forces were “in a worse position than they were last year,” despite almost 10 months of fighting.

Voyger, now a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis and professor at the American University of Kyiv, said there was “disarray within the Russian ranks,” while Putin “doesn’t have many good military options on the table. “

The picture is grim for the individual Russian troops at the front. “It’s below zero now,” Voyager said. “Some are operating in occupied towns and villages but some are in the fields.”

“Even last year, when they were exercising and preparing for an invasion in the forests of Belarus, it wasn’t a very pleasant experience being there for months. And now—with the added stress of constant Ukrainian shelling, bombardment and constant attacks— that will probably be unbearable.”

“The ground is freezing already, so soon enough I would expect there will be more ground attacks by Ukrainian heavy armor, which will add to the pressure,” Voyger added.

“This constant grinding effort is destroying the morale of Russian troops, not to mention the physical exhaustion, stress and all the other associated difficulties.”

Ukraine artillery unit operating near Bakhmut Donetsk
Ukrainian artillerymen from the 24th brigade load ammunition into a 2S1 Gvozdika self-propelled howitzer at a position along the front line in the vicinity of Bakhmut, Donetsk region, on December 10.
IHOR TKACHOV/AFP via Getty Images

Moscow’s mobilization has not been entirely smooth, although it does appear to have helped slow Ukraine’s offensives. Many videos have emerged of mobilized troops complaining about the lack of equipment, training and orders. Russia’s reported attempts to purchase ammunition from Iran and North Korea, and receive ammunition from Belarus, speak to the pressures of the war.

In one video published this week, the instructor of the 247th Airborne Assault Regiment made an appeal to the governor of the Kemerovo region, Sergei Tsivilev, saying troops had “no medicines,” ballistic vests with “almost no protection” and no thermal underwear.

There have been unconfirmed reports of Russian soldiers suffering from hypothermia, bronchitis and pneumonia—among other illnesses—at the front and even at bases in Belarus.

“It is certainly true that we are much better equipped and prepared for the cold weather than the Russians,” Kostenko said. “But another key factor in this war is machinery and equipment, and we know that the enemy is well resourced in that sense.

“The winter’s arrival has more or less equally impacted both sides. Where we are holding ground, it will be helpful. Where we need to counterattack, it will get trickier, so you need to find the sweet spots in terms of weather and location, as well as deploying the right weapons and machinery.”

On the Home Front

Ukraine has challenges too: its leaders have been clear about Kyiv’s desperate need for new weapons, much more artillery ammunition, suitable vehicles and winter clothes. Russia’s challenges are more human.

“Their problems are different because they still have low morale,” Oleg Ignatov, senior Russia analyst at the Crisis Group, told Newsweek. “They still have problems with strategy… People on both sides who support this war or who oppose this war say that Russian soldiers don’t understand the goals of the military operation and even officers don’t understand the goals.”

Russian units are still holding the line, however, and in some places making small advances. “There are problems in the Russian army, but we should not overstate these problems,” Ignatov said, adding that social media videos of rusty weapons and thin uniforms do not tell the whole story.

“They have such problems but it doesn’t mean that they won’t try to solve them,” Ignatov said. “And that doesn’t mean that they won’t be successful in this.”

Still, he added, further mobilizations would add more stress to the system. “The more soldiers you have, the more problems you have,” Ignatov added.

Scattered protests by mothers of soldiers, meanwhile, have become one of the few public expressions of dissent that are tolerated within Russian borders. Concerns about public opinion may have played a role in the cancellation of President Vladimir Putin’s traditional end-of-year press conference, according to the British Ministry of Defense.

Hope of a sudden upswell in domestic opposition to Russia’s war is likely misplaced, according to Ignatov. Polls appear to show a weakening in support for the “special military operation,” but the value of surveys is limited in the totalitarian state.

Destroyed Russian vehicle at Kherson airport Ukraine
Part of a destroyed Russian military vehicle is seen at a base used by Moscow’s forces outside Kherson airport in Ukraine on November 19. Successive battlefield defeats have left the Kremlin’s troops in a difficult position.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Protests by military mothers and families have played key roles in modern Russian history, from the movement against the Second Chechen War and the fallout from the 2000 Kursk submarine disaster. But two decades of Putinism has changed Russian society.

“We cannot compare it with the situation during the Chechen War, where mothers’ movements or other soldiers’ movements were really influential and they were a real factor in Russia’s political life and public opinion,” Ignatov said.

“We don’t see that now. We see local voices…but we don’t have a movement against mobilization or a movement against the war inside Russia…If the situation is worse, maybe we can expect these voices to be more present. “

Even mobilization, touted as a huge political risk by foreign observers, has gone ahead relatively smoothly. “Russian society accepted this first phase,” Ignatov said. “Those people who were opposed left if they could, but those who are not opposed they’re either silent or they participate in this.”

Major defeats and notable losses—such as the sinking of the Moskva guided missile cruiser and flagship of the Black Sea fleet—have broken through into the national conversation. Future losses will likely prompt more difficult questions for the Kremlin.

“The military will try to hide these losses as they are doing this right now, and of course the family members will try to find information,” Ignatov said. “Maybe this could be a basis for, not opposition, but for new videos and angry commentaries.”

Military successes, on the other hand, look unlikely for Moscow. “I think the Ukrainians are in a great position to advance,” Voyager said. For the Russians, “it’s difficult to see how they can build an effective offensive formation that could penetrate Ukraine again and take over a major city,” he added.

Voyger said: “The only other temporary success I could see is if they can create this multi-layered echelon defense on the ground in a way that inflicts sustained casualties and damage on the advancing Ukrainian forces, knowing that the Ukrainians tend to spare the lives of their soldiers if they can. So, if they suffer substantial losses, most likely the Ukrainians will hold the advance until they can find another way.”

The Russians, according to Voyager, “at this point, they’re just counting on—as they used to call it in Soviet times when fighting against the Germans—burying the enemy with corpses.”

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