As the bitter cold of winter settles in and average temperatures range between -4.8°C and 2°C, both Ukrainian and Russian troops are preparing for a new phase of the war.
Freezing temperatures, which can sometimes drop as low as -20°C, can hamper the performance of weapons and equipment. Ammunition can lose responsiveness and accuracy, meaning more is required. Wear and tear of equipment increases and battery life decreases, leading to increased maintenance, which is also more difficult in wintertime.
But these conditions can also limit the movement and use of heavy equipment, such as tanks and (especially towed) artillery. This can directly affect military operations as mobility is crucial in warfare, so that the troops can advance or retreat. Winter weather risks locking down the frontlines.
Winter landscapes, snow and lack of foliage require new types of camouflage to prevent detection by enemy forces. Another limiting factor in winter is the risk of frostbite and hypothermia among soldiers.
Aside from physical effects, wet and cold can also affect the morale of the troops. While this is a psychological factor, its importance should not be underestimated as low morale can lead to decreased battle effectiveness.
To avoid this, undertaking preparatory measures for both personnel and equipment is essential, as this may go a long way to determining success in winter campaigns. This includes not only switching to winter uniforms, but training for operating in winter as well as preparing the equipment for colder temperatures.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has declared that his country is prepared to continue military operations during the winter. Russian officials have stated that they are also prepared for winter warfare, with defence minister Sergei Shoigu visiting the Russian troops stationed in southern Donetsk to examine troop readiness.
For Ukraine, perhaps the biggest difficulties include not only the relative cold but the country’s damaged energy infrastructure. This can have a profound impact on military operations as, for instance, lack of electricity could undermine everything from communications to the operational capacity of field hospitals. This is why Zelensky stressed the need to install more air defences to prevent the Russians from destroying Ukraine’s energy grid.
If the energy infrastructure is protected, the Ukrainian side claims it does not foresee any difficulties. The head of Ukrainian military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, claimed that winter would not affect either the Ukrainian or Russian sides, as they were both used to it.
The commander of the Armed Forces of Ukraine of the Southern Front, Alexander Tarnavsky, echoed Budanov’s statement, suggesting that the Ukrainian forces are mostly moving on foot without heavy equipment, which is why the weather will have little effect on their operations.
And while rain and snow could potentially impede the mobility of heavy machinery such as tanks, Ukrainian troops have demonstrated their effectiveness primarily when working in small infantry detachments, often using lighter equipment.
However, some analysts believe that the winter is going to be a test for Ukrainians’ national will.
Russia has dedicated significant effort to ensuring that Russian troops can operate in extreme temperatures. For many years, they have been deploying to the Arctic to conduct cold-weather exercises. The topic of winter warfare is also widely discussed within official military publications, including the Armeyskii Sbornik (the Military Collection journal).
Meanwhile, the Russian ministry of defence is distributing information related to procedures and timeframes for preparing weapons and military equipment for seasonal operations.
Given that the Russians dedicate a considerable amount of attention to combat-readiness when it comes to winter warfare, and that Ukraine is not nearly as cold as the Arctic, the conditions in Ukraine should not be an impediment to Russian troops continuing their military operations.
Significant Winter Battles
Winter battles have taken place throughout history, with significant battles taking place under the leadership of Greek military leaders Xenophon and Alexander the Great, for instance.
More recently, the Soviet Union in particular demonstrated its ability to wage war successfully in winter. During the Battle of Stalingrad, Soviet troops endured extreme cold temperatures, scarcity of supplies and constant German attacks.
Notwithstanding these challenges, they managed to turn the tide of the war and eventually achieve victory. Stalingrad’s winter war has left a huge imprint on the Russian historical memory
Both western and Russian analysts expect that during the winter, both sides will use long-range strikes on critical infrastructure and supply routes far behind the front line. But how this will play out on the battlefield and where the main battles will take place remains to be seen.
One possibility is that the Ukrainians will continue pushing toward Tokmak in the Zaporizhzhia province and try to encircle Bakhmut, while the Russians maintain pressure on the important centres of Kupyansk, in the Kharkiv Oblast, and Avdiivka in eastern Donetsk. Ukraine will want to prevent the Russians from making any more territorial gains while trying to salvage its own counteroffensive, which some western sources say is failing.
But the future of this conflict will largely come down not to weather, but to political will and the availability of resources.
Ultimately, the outcome of the winter operations in Ukraine will depend on the will of the opposing forces, and on the west’s ability, and willingness, to supply the Ukrainian side with the necessary quantities of ammunition. This might be a challenge with, for instance, US president Joe Biden struggling to get Ukraine funding through the House of Representatives, and the additional demands of an escalating war in the Middle East.
This article was updated on November 3, to add that Ukraine’s winter temperatures can drop to -20°C.