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Russia can no longer rely on General Winter

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KYIV — He helped beat Napoleon’s Grande Armée and Hitler’s Wehrmacht. General Winter was always supposed to be a good friend to Russian forces. 

But this year, his loyalties are less certain. 

President Vladimir Putin can no longer count on Russia’s old ally now that the Kremlin’s soldiers in Ukraine are the demoralized invaders, facing rasping sleet and snow, and temperatures that plunge to -20 Celsius, and lower. 

Pundits and military analysts had suggested for months that winter would bring a hiatus in the fighting on Ukraine’s frontlines — but it is becoming increasingly clear that both sides will seek to press home advantages in the cold, each marshaling their dueling generals. It’s General Winter versus General Frostbite. The Russian plan is to demoralize Ukrainian civilians by knocking out their electricity and heating, while the Ukrainians want to launch commando raids and train their artillery on poorly equipped Russian draftees, who lack warm winter gear and hot food. 

While the pace of combat is generally expected to slow, there’s been no let-up in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, despite snow flurries and icy temperatures.

“Battles take place day and night, regardless of the weather,” combat medic and former Ukrainian lawmaker Yegor Firsov told POLITICO from the frontline. “Now I’m near Bakhmut. The situation here is very complicated. It changes every day swinging like a pendulum — from our successes and euphoria when we advance, to the difficult situation when the enemy advances,” he wrote. 

With a touch of bravado, he added: “Yesterday it was snowing, we were glad of that, because there is nothing worse than freezing rain.”

Ukraine’s defense ministry has also made clear the plan is to keep the pressure up during winter. “Those who are now talking about a possible ‘pause in hostilities’ due to freezing temperatures in the winter have likely never sunbathed in January on the southern coast of Crimea,” Ukraine’s defense ministry tauntingly tweeted Sunday, hinting at the Ukrainian ambition of taking the fight to the peninsula Russia illegally annexed in 2014.

General Winter has, of course, not always come good for Russia. The Finns turned the tables on the Russians during their 1940 Winter War outmaneuvering the leaden Russians as they glided nimbly across the snows on skis to launch lightning guerrilla strikes.  

The Ukrainians are hoping to inflict similar damage. Intercepts analyzed by the Conflict Intelligence Team, an investigative group, reveal how mobilized troops are already complaining about the lack of basic equipment — let alone winter kit — and the conditions they’re enduring, including no hot food for days.

No hiatus

For now, action is crackling across a number of fronts. Nothing signals a quiet winter. 

According to Kateryna Stepanenko from the Institute for the Study of War, which has been monitoring combat using open sources: “The Russians are resuming and intensifying their offensive operations southwest of Donetsk oblast [province].” She added that they were using hardened paratroopers freed up by the withdrawal from around the southern city of Kherson.

The Ukrainians have also been moving forces to reinforce their line, said Nick Reynolds of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, a security think tank that’s been conducting operational analysis for Ukraine’s general staff. 

Reynolds added the Ukrainians want also to push the Russians on the east bank of the Dnipro River 15 to 20 kilometers further from newly liberated Kherson to stop Russian artillery bombardments. This week, both sides have been trading barrages across the Dnipro River with Kherson city echoing with the blasts, prompting the Ukrainian authorities to offer civilians evacuation. 

Reynolds also suspects the Russians may throw in a wild card by building up “forces on the Belarusian border north of Kyiv again in an attempt to draw Ukrainian forces away from the frontline in the south and east.” 

A Ukrainian security source, who asked to remain unidentified as he’s not authorized to talk with the media, told POLITICO that Russian warplanes were seemingly testing Ukrainian air defenses along the border. Russian military bloggers on Telegram say the Ukrainians are setting up more border observation posts equipped with electronic eavesdropping devices and are sowing minefields north of Chernihiv. 

Meanwhile, fighting is fierce around Svatove-Kreminna and Bilohorivka in Luhansk, where the Ukrainians have identified weaknesses in Russian defenses. “In the Luhansk region, we are slowly moving forward while fighting,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nighty television update Sunday.

Cold or mild?

The Ukrainians are in two minds whether they want a severe winter or a mild one for their campaigns. A mild season would help cushion Ukraine’s civilian population from the consequences of Russia’s pummeling of the country’s power grid. But it would also mean muddy conditions — known as bezdorizhzhia (roadlessness) in Ukrainian and rasputitsa in Russianmaking the movement of troops and armor difficult for them as well as the Russians.

And it’s the Ukrainians who want to build quickly on the momentum they’ve achieved in recent weeks with their stunning victories around Kharkiv in the northeast and most recently in Kherson in the south. The advance in Kherson has brought Crimea within range of their missiles.

A cold winter with the terrain frozen would help both sides maneuver — but freezing conditions would likely take its toll on Russian troops and their shoddy equipment. Tanks and vehicles could no longer be hidden under leafless trees. Last winter, as they tried to advance on Kyiv, the Russians were plagued by mechanical breakdowns because of low-quality manufacture and a failure — like the Wehrmacht — to winterize thoroughly their tanks and armored vehicles.

The Institute for the Study of War agrees General Frostbite will likely favor the Ukrainians. In a recent assessment, the Washington-based think tank said Russian troops will be at a disadvantage. “Winter weather could disproportionately harm poorly-equipped Russian forces in Ukraine,” the ISW said. The Russian defense ministry has been publicizing efforts to train and equip its troops better, most likely a move ISW interprets as an effort “to quell public dissatisfaction” in Russia with the conditions Russian soldiers are expected to endure. Recently, draftees from Rostov posted a video on Telegram complaining of the lack of proper training and equipment and food. “We pay for our food out of pocket,” they said. 

Among other things, Russian forces have reportedly begun to receive Iranian-made flak jackets and helmets. But they’re unlikely to match the quality of the clothing and gear Ukraine’s Western allies have been rushing to Ukrainian troops as the weather turns frigid.

The British defense ministry reported recently it had sent 195,000 winter kit items with more to come; other Western partners, too, are supplying uniforms, mobile generators and tents for 200,000 soldiers — including Lithuania, Germany, Denmark, the U.S., Sweden and Finland. Canada is providing Ukraine with half a million winter uniforms.

Back to basics

On the civilian home front, the Ukrainians are scrambling to defeat General Winter by trying to replenish stocks of spare parts to patch up the battered power grid and they are looking for thousands upon thousands of diesel and thermal generators. They’re also pleading for more air-defense systems to prevent damage being inflicted by the Russians in the first place — and the lobbying of Western capitals, including of Washington for U.S. Patriot missiles, by Ukrainian officials is set to intensify.

Ukrainian national leaders, regional governors and city mayors are doing their best to gird for the winter. Kyiv’s Mayor Vitali Klitschko is preparing his city to endure a cold, dark winter and hoping to avoid any mass evacuations. He is urging Kyiv’s more than 3 million residents to store enough water, food and supplies for the winter. And his administration is preparing around 1,000 centers where residents can go to warm and feed themselves.

Lviv’s energetic mayor, Andriy Sadovyi, is alarmed by the Russian targeting of a power transmission station near the Rivne nuclear power plant, 200 kilometers northeast of Lviv, which holds out other potential horrors. 

Sadovyi is feverishly planning to keep not only himself but his whole western Ukrainian city warm throughout the winter season — and he hopes to have around 6,000 emergency shelters up and running; many will have wood stoves, others portable diesel generators. “We are storing a lot of firewood and we have bought huge supplies of oil and diesel. We must prepare for when the city must live without electricity,” he said.

He even has to take the traditional approach in his own office. He has had two antique — and very large — ceramic wood-burning stoves in his office restored to working order. 

“Help me feed the logs in,” he asked when POLITICO visited him last week in his town hall. 

“These fireplaces hadn’t been used for around a hundred years, until now.”

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