Winter may slow down Ukraine’s advances, but Kyiv is better prepared than Russia’s ragtag forces.
By Amy Mackinnon
Dec 2, 2022
While Ukraine has successfully reclaimed huge swathes of territory in the country’s east in recent months, U.S. officials expect the onset of winter will slow the pace of fighting as both the Russian and Ukrainian armed forces contend with muddy terrain, lack of ground cover, and a morale-sapping bitter cold.
The region’s icy winters have played to Moscow’s advantage in the past, helping to arrest advances by Napoleon and Adolf Hitler’s under-prepared forces, earning the nickname “General Frost” or “General Winter.” But in Ukraine, Moscow faces an adversary acclimatized to the winter conditions, while analysts expect the cold will help—and hinder—the two militaries in different ways.
“I think the main difference is that Ukrainian troops are better equipped to deal with the conditions,” said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military with the Virginia-based think tank CNA. “But Ukraine is likely to have the more difficult task of pursuing offensive operations, whereas the Russian military seems largely set to defend.”
From the outset of the war, Ukraine has received military and humanitarian aid from a phalanx of Western countries that has left its troops significantly better equipped to weather the chilly months ahead. In October, Canada announced that it was to send nearly half a million items of cold-weather gear, while the latest military aid package from Washington included 200 generators for Ukrainian troops.
The Russian military has been beset by logistics challenges since the beginning of the war. Russian officials have acknowledged that they didn’t have adequate gear to equip the hundreds of thousands of troops called up in a partial mobilization announced in September, which is likely to compound the failing morale of Russian troops as the mercury dips.
While Ukraine has succeeded in driving the Russian military out of approximately 50 percent of the territory it had occupied since the start of the invasion in February, the winter conditions are likely to make further offensive operations challenging. A lack of leaves on the trees leaves troops and tanks exposed, while water-logged terrain may force them to move by roadways.
“I think you can expect over the winter months that some of the operations will slow, and there may not be too many dramatic moves by either side,” John Kirby, spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council, told reporters on Wednesday. “That doesn’t mean that we think everything is just going to come to a halt,” he said.
But winter in the region is not a uniform state. A deep freeze—which usually sets in around February—can turn the ground rock solid and could pave the way for more ambitious maneuvers early next year. “The advantage, then, is to the force that is able to take advantage of that, and Ukrainians are, in general terms, in a much better position to take advantage of that than the Russians,” said Fred Kagan, a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute.
For Ukraine, there is every incentive to try to keep up the momentum and keep Russian forces on the back foot. In November, the Russian military was forced to retreat from the southern city of Kherson as Ukrainian strikes on bridges along the nearby Dnipro River left Moscow’s forces increasingly isolated. In a visit to the newly liberated city, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed to continue until all occupied territories were liberated.
“The Ukrainian strategy, from my point of view, appears to be to maintain pressure on Russian forces to prevent them from reconstituting their force so that the Russian military is still on the defensive in the spring and that Ukraine retains the initiative,” Kofman said.
Moscow, meanwhile, is showing signs of digging in. Commercial satellite imagery has revealed that Russian forces have been constructing miles of trenches and anti-tank fortifications. “Right now, the Russians are creating defensive lines in southern Kherson. They’re doing it in Zaporizhzhia, and they’re starting to do it a little bit more up in Luhansk and some parts of Donetsk,” said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher with the Rand Corporation.
“They have a smaller front line now, with more people, so they’re able to create a more dense defense line, or several echelons of lines, and that is going to make it difficult over time for the Ukrainians to engage them head on,” Massicot said.
With the Russian armed forces battered and bruised after months of fighting, digging into defensive positions and using the winter to buy time to rebuild their forces would seem like an obvious choice for Moscow. But from day one of the invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s political objectives in the war have been consistently divorced from the realities on the battlefield.
“Putin has ordered his military to do a variety of militarily stupid things over the course of this war,” Kagan said.
Indeed, Russia hasn’t entirely given up on its efforts to seize more territory in the Donbas, as brutal fighting around the small city of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region is ongoing. The ferocity of the fight for Bakhmut, which holds little strategic significance, has baffled observers. “The Russians are leaning into a massive offensive in Donetsk Oblast, and certainly they don’t expect it to end with taking Bakhmut, because Bakhmut isn’t much of a prize,” Kagan said. One possible explanation for the continued fighting in the region, he said, could be to help Putin craft a narrative of success for audiences back in Russia. In the early days of the war, Moscow sought to justify the invasion by falsely claiming a need to liberate the Donetsk and Luhansk regions from Ukrainian oppression. While Russian forces have succeeded in seizing almost all of the Luhansk region, much of Donetsk still remains under Ukrainian control.
“It looked like Putin decided that he would give up Kherson city and western Kherson province if he could get as close to the rest of Donetsk, and then he could at least say he had accomplished that objective,” said Kagan, who added that there had been no official statements by the Kremlin to confirm that this was the Russian leader’s line of thinking.
Russia has found other ways to use the winter to its advantage, pounding Ukraine’s energy and heating systems with missile strikes in recent weeks, causing power outages across the country as it seeks to undermine public morale and pile pressure on the Zelensky government. On Tuesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg accused Putin of trying to use winter as a “weapon of war” as the alliance’s foreign ministers met in Bucharest and pledged their support to help Ukraine repair its energy grids. This week, the Biden administration also announced an emergency aid package to Ukraine of $53 million to help keep the lights on through the winter.
Moscow has also sought to leverage the winter to undermine Western support for Kyiv, as governments continue to make the case for continued high levels of military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine while publics contend with energy prices set soaring by Russia’s invasion, a tension that Russia will likely seek to exploit. A recent report by a British think tank, the Royal United Services Institute, notes that Moscow will likely unleash an “information campaign … to try to convince Western publics to spend money at home rather than sending it abroad. … Ukraine and Europe are being targeted via the same pressure points.”
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack