Winter is coming in Ukraine: could the war be over by Christmas? | TheArticle

2022-10-15 07:50:56 By : Ms. Riva Wu

Defence and Security Nations and Identities Politics and Policy

Had Dominic Raab chosen a better time to go on his summer holidays, he might have been Prime Minister today.

There is a solid trend lasting for over a century of a current or previous holder of one of the other Great Offices of State ascending to be Prime Minister, should the position become vacant in the middle of a parliament. Liz Truss was only appointed to one of the Great Offices, Foreign Secretary. Raab, her predecessor, was forced to quit, following his absence during the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, which entered its terminal stage in early August 2021 — to the surprise of far too many experts.

Raab should have known better. Over the years, a good number of significant diplomatic and military events have taken place in August or two weeks either side of the holiday month. France declared war on Prussia in the third week of July 1870, requiring Britain to demand that both sides stay out of Belgium. The July Crisis of 1914 started in the final week of that month, after which Germany decided to ignore British requests to respect Belgian neutrality. The Nazi-Soviet pact was signed in the last week of August 1939; a week later, Poland was invaded by Germany. The erection of the Berlin Wall commenced in August 1961, thus physically demonstrating the moral bankruptcy of Soviet communism. The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, an event that escalated American involvement in the Vietnam War, took place in early August 1964. The Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990. The Islamist attack on New York and the Pentagon, using hijacked airliners as weapons of mass destruction, took place within two weeks of the end of August 2001.

Of course there have been numerous political/military global events outside those eight weeks, but there is a definite trend to Make War While the Sun Shines.

It is in this context that Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in late February was unusual.

The date seems to have been forced on the Russian dictator. Making war on Ukraine in 2020 or 2021, assuming a decision had been made to do so in 2019, would have been hampered by the pandemic. Non-combat related disease has historically been a big killer of armed forces, and attacking before the development of vaccines would have exposed the Russian Army to too much risk of depletion. The Russian-developed vaccine, Sputnik, was not seen by many as a viable medication and may not have protected the troops.

Late February is also when the snowfall of Northern and Eastern Ukraine is the least potent before the thaws. Russia still had mobility problems due to poorly maintained vehicles, which led to an inability to move off-road, apparently even for tracked vehicles. This left long convoys open to ambush by small Ukrainian units armed with the latest in portable anti-tank weaponry, and contributed to Russia’s humiliating retreat from Kyiv.

So why didn’t Russia invade in the winter, when the ground was harder? If there is one thing observers have come to expect of Soviet or Russian fighting forces, it is the ability to operate in the depths of winter. When Germany invaded the USSR in June 1941, the Wehrmacht’s generals expected that the Soviet Army would be held to battle and swiftly defeated, leaving the gates to Moscow open. Instead the Soviets traded land for time, thus leaving their abandoned populations to the mercy of Nazi death squads. The Germans did not expect to have to keep pursuing Soviet formations into the Russian hinterland as the ground hardened with winter. As the weather got colder, a call went out for German civilians to send winter clothing. German land forces, which largely depended on horse-drawn supplies, were not designed to fight in sub-zero temperatures. German troops and their armoured vehicles froze to immobility just as their advance forces reached the last tram stop out of Moscow.

It was at that point that the Soviet counter-offensive started, using troops freed up from protecting the USSR from in the East, following NKVD agent Richard Sorge’s intelligence that Japan’s strategy would focus on making war in the Pacific, using its navy to attack South-east Asia, instead of invading Russia to the north from occupied Manchuria.

Cold weather in the former Soviet Union has been historically described as “Generals Autumn and Winter”: Autumn because the dirt tracks that form a large part of the road network become rivers of mud after summer, rendering them impassable by heavy vehicles, and Winter because, unless prepared, the low temperatures will make combat machinery seize up.

There seems a strong possibility that Russia’s ground forces are no longer able to mount large operations once the snows start falling. Unlike Western armies, Russia may no longer possess an all-weather fighting force. Thus Putin invading in late February 2022 seized his earliest possible opportunity after the worst of the pandemic, but also the poor weather, had abated. Had he delayed further, Britain and American might have been able to ferry even more military supplies to the Ukrainian Army, to the greater detriment of Russia’s ground forces. Ukraine would have been better-prepared to resist.

Certainly the Russian Army’s performance once the lines solidified in the spring has been poor. It seems that Russia will only be able to mount defensive operations in the weeks to come.

This may not be the case for the Ukrainian Army. The Ukrainians have been trained to Western standards for several years in the wake of the illegal Russian annexations of 2014. This may also include the ability for units to wage war in winter. Bivouacked against the onrushing cold weather, Russian formations may lack winter camouflage such as white coveralls, or even proper cold-weather clothing. They may not even have white paint for their vehicles, or be able to maintain them to operate successfully in low temperatures.  Heat signatures will be much clearer compared to the cold surroundings on infra-red sensors, making the best concealed vehicle a sitting duck for drones and missile-armed infantry.

The Ukrainians may be able to form white-clad hit-squads that will be all but invisible in the snowy landscape. Faced with cold weather for which they are unprepared, as well as continuing attacks by better-equipped and trained soldiers, the Russian front-lines may still continue to collapse as defensive positions are infiltrated.

In a saying promoted by a popular sex-and-dragons television drama, “Winter is Coming”. If the Ukrainian Army is able to mount offensive operations while the Russian Army cannot, then this may be one time when a war will actually be over by Christmas.

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by Paul T Horgan 14 OCT 2022

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