The first snow has fallen in Ukraine, and in the near future the temperature will be steadily below zero - the winter that the Kremlin has been daunting Ukrainians with for so long has arrived. Russian propaganda presents “General Frost” as a loyal ally of the Russian army, who had helped it during the wars against Napoleon and Hitler. Military experts believe otherwise: Russia is much less prepared for war in winter conditions than Ukraine (and this is already affecting the frontline), and examples from national history should rather alert the Kremlin, because frost had helped those who fought on their own territory.
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Winter stage of war in Ukraine: Putin wagers on a “Big Freeze”
What winter means for those at war in Ukraine
Who will be helped by winter
The role of “General Frost” in military history
“It turns out that the budenovka is ill-suited for the harsh winter”
Winter stage of war in Ukraine: Putin wagers on a “Big Freeze”
After the Russian armed forces withdrew from the bridgehead on the right bank of the Dnieper River in the Kherson Region, the fall period of the military campaign in Ukraine came to an end. It is still difficult to say whether the Russians will be able to gain a foothold on the left bank and whether the Ukrainians will try to conduct an offensive there or will instead shift their main efforts to Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk or Luhansk. But most experts agree that in the coming months, the success of the opposing sides will depend primarily on how they adapt to military action in the conditions of winter cold.
The Kremlin makes no secret of the fact that the strikes on Ukraine's energy infrastructure are aimed, among other things, at leaving the country without heating during the winter period. In Ukraine, as well as in the West, this is well understood. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky have all been saying the same thing using different expressions: Putin will try to turn winter into a weapon (weaponization of winter in English, or “big freeze,” as Ukrainian commentators figuratively call this strategy) because he cannot succeed by purely military means.
Massive strikes by guided missiles and kamikaze drones against the Ukrainian energy system are bearing fruit: since October 10, eight waves of missile attacks have damaged all thermal and hydroelectric power plants and 40 percent of the high-voltage grid facilities in Ukraine. As a result, millions of residents periodically remain without electricity and, consequently, heating. Considering that the housing stock has been badly damaged during the fighting, the World Health Organization not unreasonably fears that a health crisis will arise in Ukraine this winter due to epidemics of cold-related diseases and a large number of frostbite and hypothermia cases.
As for the actual combat operations, many experts and officials expect a literal “freezing” of the conflict during the winter period, i.e. an operational pause. Avril Haines, Director of U.S. National Intelligence, said that both the Ukrainian and Russian Armed Forces are using the winter to replenish supplies, re-equip troops and launch an offensive in the spring. According to the influential U.S. organization Atlantic Council, the Russian command will go into strategic defense based on the system of defensive fortifications currently under construction in order to buy time to test the mass of mobilized troops out in combat conditions and replenish manpower and equipment in units and formations decimated during a series of defeats in the fall.
Moreover, there have been leaks in the media from Western politicians and military officials about the possibility of reaching a political settlement just as the front lines are lulled by winter. In particular, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley called winter a “window of opportunity” for negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv. President Biden's administration then had to reassure its Ukrainian partners that General Milley's statement did not mean a refusal to further support the counterattack of the Ukrainian armed forces.
A completely different opinion is held by Ukrainian officials. The first deputy head of the Verkhovna Rada committee for national security, defense and intelligence, former commander of the AFU airborne assault troops Mykhaylo Zabrodskiy wrote in an article published in early November that the Russian side needed a respite during the winter period:
“The Russian command needs this [winter] time in order to take full advantage in a planned and efficient manner of the partial mobilization which rolled out two months ago.”
It is likely that the Ukrainian Armed Forces will try to hold the initiative and not allow the Russian troops to spend the winter quietly in their current positions. This does not mean that the Ukrainians will necessarily organize a large-scale offensive in any of the operational areas, but even with a stationary front, the Ukrainian command can hit rear bases, disrupt supply lines and reduce the combat effectiveness of units deployed in the first line with long-range, high-precision artillery systems (such as HIMARS).
Temperature map of Ukraine
Russia, for its part, has not yet demonstrated the ability to attack anywhere except near Bakhmut, and mostly at the expense of the Wagner PMC human resources and without clearly defined goals - even if Russians succeed in this area they will not gain any particular advantage if the AFU maintains its advance on the Svatove-Kreminna line with a threat to Starobelsk and the encirclement of the Luhansk grouping of the Russian Armed Forces from the north. Thus, the Russian forces will have nothing to rely on except missile strikes against Ukraine's energy infrastructure in the coming months. Most likely, the Kremlin hopes to stabilize the front line over the winter, saturate the defense with mobilized forces, and then go on a decisive offensive in the spring. But realizing these plans may not be as easy as it seems at first glance. Even if Ukraine does not attempt a major offensive, the winter itself could take many Russian soldiers' lives.
What winter means for those at war in Ukraine
Ukrainian winters cannot be called really harsh - the temperature usually ranges from plus 3 to minus 7 degrees Celsius. In the American tradition such weather is called wet cold, and from the military point of view it is the worst of all possible options (except for extreme temperatures of minus 25 degrees Celsius and below). Precipitation takes the form of rain or snow, or both at the same time, mud and slush are everywhere, moisture soaks into uniforms, accumulates in equipment and weapons, and creates “ice slush” on the roads.
Low temperatures mean higher demands on outfitting and equipping combat troops, heating permanent bases, building dugouts and sleeping and resting facilities and providing hot meals, planning for shorter daylight hours (about 9 hours compared with 15-16 in summer). Equally important is the competence of the command: erroneous movement orders or the widespread practice, judging by eyewitness accounts, of leaving mobilized units on the front line without communications and supplies can lead to high casualties in winter, even if Ukrainians do not fire a single shot.
Logistics in such weather is also complicated. Wheeled vehicles will not be able to travel off paved roads, tracked vehicles are needed and in large numbers, and winter camouflage and antifreeze will have to be procured for each vehicle. But in January, winter removes to some extent the restrictions on movement over water obstacles, which are covered with ice, and reduces the effectiveness of minefields wherever they end up under a thick layer of snow.
Ukrainian servicemen near Kiev Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times
Winter combat operations are thought to require 50% more supplies, which is a big problem even now. Maneuverability will also be reduced, with a 50-75% reduction in the speed of moving on foot in snowy terrain. In addition, on snowy roads or snow-covered fields, it is easier for reconnaissance drones to identify the location of equipment, so the proximity of industrial centers, rear bases, supply depots, and railroad tracks becomes more important.
Winter warfare requires 50% more supplies
In winter, the so-called “golden hour” - the period in which a soldier who has been seriously wounded on the battlefield can be rescued - is cut by about half. This increases the casualty toll and the equipment requirements of field hospitals. In addition, without vegetation (“greenery”), soldiers on both sides will have to press more into the ground, wet and muddy (at near-zero temperatures) or frozen (at sustained negative temperatures), meaning there will be more colds and similar illnesses.
Without the natural cover of vegetation, it is easier to uncover troop and equipment concentrations with drones. However, drones themselves will have to be used on a limited basis due to the reduction in daylight hours and constant cold winds. First of all, this applies to civilian drones, which have been purchased in gigantic quantities in the interests of both the Russian and Ukrainian armies. According to the Ukrainian side, even mass-produced drones, kamikaze drones “Geran-2” of Iranian origin, have not been seen in a while in the Ukrainian sky due to poor performance in cold weather. Not only drones, but also all electronic devices, such as those needed to operate fire control systems or communications equipment, will consume battery life faster. Even the simplest operations to maintain equipment and weapons will become more labor-intensive, and as a consequence, the number of failures, breakdowns, and malfunctions will increase.
Overcast weather and long nights also place greater demands on advanced optics and thermal imaging equipment (and thus require measures to combat detection by these very optics and thermal imaging equipment).
It is impossible to dig a hole using conventional shovels in winter, and the frozen ground will not yield to digging tools. It requires construction and special engineering equipment, as well as skills of building dugouts (however, such skills cannot be applied without delivery of reinforced concrete structures, wooden slabs, roll insulation, etc.). The first priority will be to supply engineering units with tractors, bulldozers, manipulators, and construction equipment.
Finally, winter standards of personnel support. These include winter uniforms (insulated boots, gloves, thermal underwear), and a reinforced diet (4,500-6,000 calories a day), including vitamins (to prevent cold epidemics), and medical treatment for frostbite (primarily of the feet - the notorious “trench foot” known since World War I), hypothermia, as well as (however surprising it may sound) sunburns of the skin and eyes (snow blindness).
Winter warfare is also a challenge for the morale of soldiers, which NATO representatives have emphasized. As one unnamed alliance official told the press, “If you’re fighting in those conditions, if your tank is always getting stuck, if it is always throwing a track and you’re constantly cold and wet, it affects what we would call the moral component of an army.” One likely consequence of the demoralizing effects of cold, combined with high risk to life and poor supplies, is alcohol abuse and a drop in discipline. Ultimately, winter tests out all elements of the war machine, from the condition of equipment to the level of training of commanders.
Who will be helped by winter
According to British intelligence, cold weather will create difficulties for both sides of the conflict, but the extent of its impact on the Russian troops will probably be much greater. The analysts of the American Institute for the Study of War (ISW) agree with this - they believe that winter will not stop the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Autumn and spring thaw is favorable for defensive tasks: rain soaks into the ground, and maneuvering the troops becomes difficult. But once the ground is sufficiently frozen, it is possible to conduct major operations using tracked vehicles.
The Ukrainian military started preparing sledges in summer, they raised the issue of winter uniforms with Western allies back in July. According to Der Spiegel, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov sent NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg a request for winter-adapted outfits, equipment and accommodation for 200,000 soldiers.
The Ukrainian military raised the issue of winter uniforms with the allies back in July
It was said at the NATO summit in mid-October that the alliance had already reoriented supplies to winter clothing and shifted the focus of military aide to items essential for the winter campaign.
By early December, Ukraine received 195,000 sets of winter uniforms from Great Britain alone. Germany transferred 116,000 winter jackets, 240,000 hats, 80,000 pants, as well as 200 tents and 195 generators. In October, Canada committed to supply 500 thousand winter jackets, trousers, shoes and gloves. Clothing, thermal blankets, heaters and winter food rations are known to have been delivered from more than a dozen NATO member states.
The AFP news agency describes the structure of a dugout in one of the units of the 5th AFU brigade stationed in Donbas, in which it is possible to maintain a temperature of 22 degrees Celsius at 5 degrees outside due to thermal insulation materials. According to the soldiers, they received sleeping bags from volunteers that can withstand temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius. Similar videos (of course, for propaganda purposes) have been posted by the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. AFU engineering units build dugouts from prefabricated modular structures on the second line of defense.
What about the preparation of the Russian grouping of troops for winter? As far as we can judge from open sources, there has been no systematic work in this regard so far, in spite of the fact that the calendar winter has already arrived. Even before they entered the territory of Ukraine, mobilized men were posting videos of themselves getting warm around fires. Such a way of getting warm in a combat zone would lead to immediate detection and an artillery strike. In other videos servicemen thank relatives and volunteers for buying warm clothes and pickaxes (!), thanks to which they expect to “normally exist in winter in field conditions”.
The responsibility for getting winter gear for mobilized soldiers has been placed on themselves and the volunteers Guys, we're with you! / TG
The responsibility for getting winter gear for mobilized soldiers has been placed on themselves and the volunteers. The socks (always with a letter “Z” on them) are knitted by children and pensioners, the odious actor Ivan Okhlobystin, who has said on camera that “half of the soldiers at the front are with running noses”, is busy delivering warm clothes, while the State Duma deputy and reserve lieutenant-general Andrei Gurulev is publicly perplexed why 1.5 million uniform sets are missing from the depots.
The army leadership did not seem to have learned any lessons from the spring experience. During that period, Russian soldiers were getting frostbite on their limbs on such a scale that it seriously affected the combat effectiveness of entire units. According to the Conflict Intelligence Team, in one operational area only one battalion-tactical group had tents, and only 20% of the personnel had winter uniforms (having bought them at their own expense).
Now history is repeating itself. For example, the soldiers of the 1st Motorized Rifle Company of the 80th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade of the Navy fighting in Ukraine had to buy their own winter uniforms - according to documents, they were “issued” back in the summer and immediately written off as lost in action. Some of the mobilized men captured by Ukrainians expressed genuine joy over being no longer required to spend the winter in dugouts without essential supplies.
There are video recordings circulating on Ukrainian social media showing Russian soldiers, apparently suffering from severe or moderate hypothermia and therefore barely reacting to grenades being dropped on them from a drone. Some Z-channels openly state that due to the administrative chaos cases of mobilized soldiers freezing to death have already been recorded. And notorious “war correspondents” share an unbelievably cynical “lifehack” used in the organization of offensive operations near Bakhmut by Wagner PMC forces recruited from among prison inmates:
“Due to the cold weather and lack of prepared positions, [recruited zeks] had to break into Ukrainian trenches in order not to freeze to death.”
As a result, the winter campaign may prove to be an ordeal for Russian troops regardless of the actions of the Ukrainians. Judging by how poorly the supply and general organization of newly arrived mobilized troops have been prepared, the actions of “General Moroz,” rather than those of General Valery Zaluzhniy, commander-in-chief of the AFU, will account for a large portion of irrecoverable and sanitary losses.
The role of “General Frost” in military history
The forces of nature have been influencing the course of hostilities all the time that mankind has been engaged in organized warfare. But winter, with its frosts, cold winds and snowfalls, occupies a special place among them. Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, who set out on expedition to Rome in 218 B.C., lost more than half of his army crossing the Alps because of heavy snowfalls. Sometimes winter, on the contrary, helped the attackers - for example, the victorious Mongolian cavalry moved on the ice of frozen rivers from one city to another during the invasion of Russia. In later periods, battles were sometimes simply halted in winter, and the warring armies were sent to winter quarters.
Meanwhile, history writers usually describe winter as a traditional ally of the Russian army on the battlefield. Indeed, the aggressors often suffered heavy losses due to Russia’s cold weather. In 1707 during the Northern War King Charles XII of Sweden launched a campaign deep into the enemy's territory and ended up in what is now Ukraine. The Swedes faced the worst frosts in the XVIII century in the winter of 1708/1709, and by spring less than half of Charles XII’s 50,000 strong army remained, which predetermined his defeat during the Battle of Poltava.
On June 24, 1812, the French Emperor Napoleon launched a campaign to Russia with a Great Army numbering over 600,000 men. Napoleon studied the unsuccessful experience of Charles XII and did everything to avoid his mistakes. He paid special attention to supply and logistics, having prepared the rear (intendant) units. At the same time, Napoleon expected a short campaign and a quick victory after the general battle. Soon hostilities turned into a war of attrition, but even though he enemy had suffered a failure in the Battle of Borodino and abandoned Moscow, it had not intention to surrender. On October 19, the remnants of the Great Army began to retreat, and by November 6 freezing cold set in. Only 10,000 soldiers of Napoleon's army returned to the initial point of the invasion, the River Niemen. In numerous memoirs participants of the campaign described the horrors of the Russian winter, concluding that the Great Army was defeated by “General Famine” and “General Frost”.
“General Frost” as perceived by the French public Le Petit Journal
But this usual picture is a strong simplification. In 1835 Denis Davydov, the hero of the Patriotic War, published an article “Did Frost Destroy the French Army in 1812?” in which he showed quite convincingly that the main failures of the French were not related to the weather.
Other examples can also be recalled. In the Crimean War (1853-1856) the British who landed on the peninsula lost 1,942 men (out of a total of 50,000) during the first winter because of cold winds, dampness and mud. During the 1918-1919 intervention, the Allies arriving in northern Russia encountered such a cold weather that their firearms were failing. The Soviet-Finnish and the Great Patriotic War are absolutely textbook examples of the outstanding services of “General Frost”. In the former case the “General” fought for the Finns, and in the latter helped the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army to defeat the Germans at Moscow and Stalingrad. True, in neither case were weather conditions a decisive factor (see below a detailed comment by historian Boris Sokolov).
When today's Kremlin propagandists mention the role of cold weather in Russia’s previous wars, they miss the main point: both Napoleon and Hitler, and the expeditionary corps of foreign troops in the Crimean War and the Civil War fought in winter on enemy territory, far from their rear lines and with logistics stretched over enormous distances. Russia, on the other hand, enjoyed the support of its Western allies in 1812 and 1941-1945. This time it is Russian troops fighting on foreign territory, while Western aid is being received by the enemy.
“It turns out that the budenovka is ill-suited for the harsh winter”
Historian Boris Sokolov on the role of cold weather in the Soviet-Finnish and Great Patriotic Wars
Fighting in places with really harsh winters (with constant subzero temperatures and heavy snowfall), i.e. in temperate (especially temperate continental) and subarctic climates, usually gives an advantage to the side whose army has less equipment. If we consider the “Winter War” between the Soviet Union and Finland in the winter 1939/40, the Red Army with its absolute superiority in tanks and planes and with much more numerous vehicle fleet could not use this advantage because of the weather.
Winter conditions made it difficult to move machinery on the roads and virtually eliminated off-road driving. In addition, increased fuel consumption, in part for heating, special winter oils for vehicles and use of antifreeze were required. As there were more days with no flying weather in winter than in warm seasons, Soviet aviation operations were limited, including difficulties in using airfields and the need to treat aircrafts with antifreeze.
In the Red Army, many soldiers came from southern regions and were not accustomed to cold northern winters
The Finnish Army also had an advantage in terms of availability of winter uniforms and the population being used to the conditions of severe cold. Virtually the entire Finnish population used to live in the conditions of harsh winters, and the army had a sufficient supply of winter uniforms for all mobilized men. The Red Army had many soldiers who were originally from the south and were not accustomed to cold northern winters. In addition, during the war it became clear that the Red Army “budyonovka” helmet was ill-suited for harsh northern winters. So, since 1940 it was replaced by the hat with earflaps.
However, one cannot say that frosty weather played the main role in the failure of the Red Army in the Soviet-Finnish war. The main reason was the superiority of the Finns in the levels of combat training and command. On the other hand, the Red Army was able to break through the Mannerheim line in February and March 1940, without waiting for the warm season. So, the winter difficulties did not have a decisive influence on the actions of the Soviet troops.
The topic of cold and frost was central to Finnish Winter War leaflets
As for the Great Patriotic War, during the Battle of Moscow the German Army Group Center advancing on Moscow did experience a serious shortage of winter uniforms. This shortage was a result of not only the lack of winter clothing but also logistical problems. Warm clothing was available in sufficient quantities in the rear warehouses located near railway junctions.
However, due to the shortage of fuel and the poor state of the roads, the warm clothes for the most part could not be delivered to the front. The shortage of fuel was a consequence of the fact that Operation Barbarossa began with only a three-month supply of fuel because of its reliance on a Blitzkrieg. Despite captured trophies and additional supplies, the Wehrmacht was already experiencing fuel shortages in October 1941, at the start of the battle for Moscow; the situation worsened by December when the Soviet counteroffensive began.
In winter conditions Germans often could not evacuate damaged or even serviceable tanks and planes during retreat - because of the shortage of fuel and antifreeze and the condition of roads. In December German irretrievable losses of tanks and self-propelled guns amounted to 375 vehicles, with only 1 tank received as a replacement. In January 1942, the Germans lost 415 tanks and self-propelled guns, with 159 vehicles replaced. The losses in army trucks were even greater.
The “General Frost” factor in the battle for Moscow was essential, and it worked in favor of the Red Army
The situation with winter uniforms for the Wehrmacht was aggravated by the fact that it did not yet have winter uniforms as such. Therefore, the troops on the Eastern Front had to be supplied with warm clothes collected in Germany as part of the “winter aid” campaign or forcibly taken from the inhabitants of the occupied territories.
In contrast, after the Finnish war the Red Army got a new winter uniform which included hats with earflaps, woolen coats, jackets and valenki was introduced, with which almost all front-line units were supplied. As a result, in some German units the number of frostbitten exceeded the number of those killed and wounded in action.
Prior to the Soviet counter-offensive the Luftwaffe dominated the air, but by early December Soviet aviation took over. Soviet aircraft flew from well-equipped airfields in Moscow, while the airfields used by the Luftwaffe had been destroyed by Soviet forces in retreat, and the field aerodromes were icy. In addition, the Germans lacked fuel and at times were unable to fly in the kind of bad weather in which Soviet aircraft were able to fly from Moscow airfields.
Freezing German soldiers surrendering near Moscow
The Luftwaffe could not exploit their superiority in aircraft quality and in the level of pilot training. For the first time since June 22, 1941 Soviet aircraft were making several times as many sorties per day as German aircraft. Overall, the “General Frost” factor in the battle for Moscow was significant, and it worked in the Red Army's favor. However, the Germans' loss of this battle was still to a greater extent due to the overall depletion of the Wehrmacht's material and technical resources in October-November 1941 than to the winter conditions of combat operations.
By April 1942 the Germans came up with winter uniforms, and they delivered them to the Eastern Front in October. But the 6th Army fighting in Stalingrad never received winter uniforms prior to being surrounded. The fact is that Paulus' army, even before it ended up in a “cauldron”, experienced significant difficulties with supplies, as the two groupings fighting at Stalingrad and in the Caucasus were connected by a single railway line branching from Rostov. And winter uniforms were not considered a priority cargo compared to ammunition and food.
The encirclement proved to be a complete surprise for the Germans. After the encirclement of the 6th Army, winter conditions limited the Luftwaffe's activity because of the large number of days with no flying weather, and this had the most negative effect on the functioning of the “air bridge” organized for supplies.
In Stalingrad the winter was also to the advantage of the Red Army, but still “General Frost” did not play a decisive role in the destruction of Paulus' army. The exhaustion of Wehrmacht's resources on the southern flank of the Eastern Front, which occurred by early November 1942, and also the obstinacy of Hitler, who refused to withdraw his troops from Stalingrad, despite the threat of encirclement, were important factors. And even if there had been fewer days with no flying weather, Soviet fighters and anti-aircraft guns would have still played a role, as would the ever-increasing distance between the “air bridge” airfields and the encircled troops.
Material prepared in cooperation with Sofia Presnyakova