Russian Winter: Myths and fables

Anti-terrorist operation in eastern Ukraine (War Ukraine). Source - Ministry of Defence of Ukraine.
Anti-terrorist operation in eastern Ukraine (War Ukraine). Source - Ministry of Defence of Ukraine.

In the last few days, various opinions have appeared in the general press arguing that the arrival of winter will mean a paralysis of operations, a catastrophe for the Ukrainian population or an enormous military advantage for Russia, not to mention its effects on the economy of the European Union. Again and again reference is made to the “Russian Winter” or “General Winter” going back to the Napoleonic Wars or World War II. Beyond the fact that this calculatedly defeatist message supports some of the Kremlin’s narratives, it is very interesting to contrast it with reality…

When, in the winter of 1812, the remnants of Napoleon’s Grande Armée returned to their home bases in Central and Western Europe, little remained of the huge army that had crossed the Niemen in June. Some 380,000 men from the fifteen or so countries that made it up had perished, victims of fighting, starvation, scorched earth, Kutuzov’s guerrilla tactics, and, of course, the cold and the elements. In short, hundreds of thousands of uniformed men fell under the hooves of the white horse of the relentless and fearsome “Russian Winter”.

This story, which could be adjectivised to the point of paroxysm, was repeated for some point by point in the Second World War, with Nazi Germany’s forces bogged down at Stalingrad, at the gates of Moscow or at Leningrad, suffering terrible casualties and ultimately forced to retreat and defeated.

What those who bring up both stories in connection with the war in Ukraine, possibly self-interestedly, overlook is that there are few, if any, parallels. Moreover, if one were to draw historical comparisons, one might start with the fact that this time the aggressor and the one fighting far from its logistical and industrial bases – most of them scattered in the interior of the country – is Russia. We should also talk about the support received by the Soviet Union, which amounted to tens of thousands of 4x4s, trucks, tanks, rations, and all kinds of supplies, without which it would have been difficult to defeat Nazi Germany. In addition, of course, there were problems in equipping individual German soldiers, who did not have the proper uniforms, among many other factors that worked against Hitler, fortunately.

That said, it is worth looking at some of the consequences of winter for both sides in the war in Ukraine, starting with logistics. In this regard, the first thing to consider is strategic transport capabilities. Unlike in the Napoleonic Wars or World War II, there are no GLOCs (Land Lines of Communication) hundreds or thousands of kilometres across hostile territory, relying overwhelmingly on muscle power, be it pack animals or even human porters. After all, the Heer was in fact poorly motorised, relying on a logistical train of hundreds of thousands of quadrupeds, something the railways never fully replaced.

Panzer VI (Tiger I) and T-34. Source - Bundesarchiv.
Panzer VI (Tiger I) and T-34. Source – Bundesarchiv.

On the contrary, the war in Ukraine is a war fought in border areas and relatively close to each other’s economic, human and manufacturing centres, especially the Ukrainian ones since most of Russia’s defence industry is in the hinterland. Moreover, Ukraine’s rail networks are still in service, despite regular – and very limited, it must be said – Russian cruise missile attacks. As it is, Ukraine has sufficient rail and motorised means to deliver supplies to the various theatres.

The real problem lies not in the long distances – including those from the US, Canada and Australia to Poland and Romania to supply Ukraine – but between the second and third echelons and the front line. It is a problem that has less to do with winter or the current rasputitsa than with the dynamics of the fighting itself and has particularly affected Russia. First because of Ukrainian attacks on the long flanks of its deployment and now because of the action of M270s and HIMARS or 155mm howitzers on interdiction missions.

What we will hardly see again, and what we did see last winter, is Russia’s total dependence on roads to get supplies to its forward troops and how absurd problems such as the widespread use of outdated tyres caused major problems and bottlenecks in the never-ending supply convoys. This happened because Russia was trying to make rapid progress into Ukraine and was dependent on a few lines of communication. Nowadays, Russia has its depots much closer to the front line and in many cases inside Ukrainian territory.

On the Ukrainian side, the situation is even more promising, as Russia has not had the kind of effect that the Ukrainian HIMARS have had on some key points of the Russian logistical effort. In this respect, Russians have shown that they know how to distribute shipments in all sorts of ways to minimise losses, something they will continue to do in winter, even though the cold weather may affect vehicles. This is a point that is also exaggerated, as virtually any modern vehicle is prepared to deal with atrocious temperatures – just look at the conditions in which manufacturers test any utility vehicle – if they are careful to use the right lubricants and fluids for the season, as well as tyres, chains and other accessories.

In terms of tactical mobility, wheeled vehicles will be penalised on the one hand by being more incapable in difficult terrain given their height and by generating more pressure per square centimetre on the ground than tracked vehicles. However, the lightness that we have seen in the Ukrainian vehicles used in the Kharkov offensive may also be an advantage. It is much easier to pull a pick-up out of the mud than a tank, which requires either another tank or a recovery tank. Not to mention that for light vehicles, the logistical constraints are also less, which partly helps to solve the main problem.

Not even the temperature question should be exaggerated, but rather put in context. Kiev’s average temperature in January is -2.8ºC, with an average minimum of -8.2ºC. Of course, much lower peaks are reached during the night, which can go well below -10°C. For Donetsk, these values are -4.1 and -6.7 respectively. In Kherson we are talking about -1.6 and -4.4°C, while in Lugansk it would be -4.0 and -6.8°C.

Sabzak pass. Source – Spanish Ministry of Defence.

Although the temperatures are low, they are not low enough with the right equipment to stop a modern army. To give an example, in Herat (Afghanistan), these values are 0.1 and -4.0ºC and in Tallinn (Estonia) -2.9 and -5.5ºC. The latter two are places where there have been or are Spanish soldiers deployed who, despite the cold, have not stopped carrying out their mission. This writer spent a winter in Qala-e-Naw and with a minimum of preparation, both the Iveco Lince and the Rebecos, Vempar, the weapons and even the Italian Mangusta helicopters that sometimes escorted us, worked without major setbacks. With the exception of specific areas such as the Sabzak pass, which became complicated at certain times.

In comparison, the same values in Moscow are -6.2 and -8.7ºC, while in Volgograd (Stalingrad) they are -6.3 and -9.2ºC, in addition to which the winter of 1941-1942 was unusually cold. Indeed, more pleasant temperatures than winter temperatures in some inland states of the United States…

On the other hand, the individual equipment of a modern infant – and the Ukrainians are certainly enjoying it – is radically different from that of 40, 60, 80, let alone 200 years ago. Better breathable, lighter and stronger fabrics, organised in layers, with complements such as gloves or full underwear, balaclavas or boots with Gore-Tex or Primaloft are now the norm and are arriving in Ukraine in industrial quantities donated by its allies. On the Russian side, although they have put their industry to work in three shifts, it is clear that the equipment of the “mobiks” varies greatly depending on the place of origin, as is the case with the militiamen of Donetsk and Lugansk.

The reduction in daylight hours could have more impact than the cold. With the arrival of winter and shorter days, combined with more unpredictable weather (rain, storms, blizzards, fog, etc.), visibility will be significantly reduced. Although this will not diminish operations, it will benefit those who have better optronic equipment in their vehicles and equip their infantrymen with night vision systems. Here again, the Ukrainian side has a clear advantage. The only thing that may be a nuisance, but by no means an insurmountable problem, is the reduction of battery life due to the cold.

Furthermore, there has been some talk of cold and bad weather and the use of, for example, drones, which could be limited. The truth is that the war started in winter, we have gone through all the seasons since then and there has been no reduction in this regard, quite the contrary. The fact that something happens at a particular time and place, i.e. that a phenomenon is a punctual one – such as the closure of the Sabzak Pass mentioned above – does not make the exception a rule.

Nor will life in the trenches become unbearable, although it will become more difficult. As we have already seen, portable ovens and cookers will have to be provided, as well as more covered shelters. Where necessary, reinforced field rations and even vitamin supplements will have to be provided to avoid as far as possible some common illnesses, such as influenza, which nowadays hardly degenerate into an epidemic and which are not incapacitating either. Nevertheless, at least on the Western side, all these things have been commonplace for decades. This is also true in Russia, by the way, even if at times there have been complaints about out-of-date rations, which, however much publicity one might want to give it, is of minimal importance. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that both Ukrainians and militiamen in the Donbas have been fighting trench warfare since 2014, having survived each and every winter since then without major problems.

Lastly, the role of “Russian Winter” on the Ukrainian civilian population and economies – including European ones – is often referred to as having a moral effect comparable to that of the atomic bomb. It is true that the state of Ukraine’s finances, as we have been reporting in the daily reports, is disastrous. Its public deficit is estimated to be around $5 billion a month, and the country is also out of the debt markets. This leaves Kiev in the hands of its European and US allies. At the moment the EU is already working on a plan to provide financial assistance of $1.5 billion a month while the US follows suit.

In addition, Ukraine’s energy infrastructure has been severely damaged by Russian missile and drone strikes in recent weeks. Nonetheless, it is hard to believe that very difficult conditions could detract from Zelensky’s ability to continue the fighting. Even in this post-heroic era, societies like Ukraine seem determined to fight for their survival as a nation to the very end. Perhaps because it is not so much the degree of suffering that is decisive as the perceived threat, and in the Ukrainian case, this is a war for existence itself. Returning to the historical parallels from the beginning, the cold will undoubtedly bring added calamity to the Ukrainians, but it is much more doubtful that it can become the decisive factor.

As for the allies, the European Union has full gas reserves ahead of schedule. There will be shocks, probably actions in the Grey Zone and unforeseen events of all kinds. There will be a technical recession over the winter and this will generate discontent. Yet, as much as Moscow tries to encourage it by all means, it does not seem likely to be enough for major governments to cut off support for Kiev.

One could go on listing factors and reasons why the winter will not bring a substantial halt to the war, nor will it be a catastrophe for Ukraine. Rather, it will be the opposite. Given the technical advantage that Ukraine enjoys in some areas, such as night vision equipment; given the need to maintain the tempo of operations and pressure on Russia to avoid using the winter to reorganise and reconstitute its forces to fight in better conditions in the spring; given the economic problems and the large public deficit that make it necessary to seek short-term progress; and given the training advantage that each Ukrainian military currently has over its Russian counterparts, it is more likely that Kiev will be able to use the winter to its advantage than the other way around.


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