Ukrainian leaders remain optimistic about plans to liberate all occupied territory, even as winter approaches, looming hopeless conditions on the home front and a delay – or even pause – in counter-offensive operations in the south and east.
“We will fight as long as we have the strength,” the Supreme Commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, said after the recent liberation of the main southern city of Kherson. “Our goal is to liberate all Ukrainian land from Russian occupation. We will not stop on this road under any circumstances.”
The first snow of winter fell in several parts of Ukraine on Thursday. International observers expect new challenges as rain and mud are followed by freezing winter temperatures.
But the Ukrainian armed forces have repeatedly confused the expectations of those in the east and west. Kiev will look for more surprises in the coming months, with an eye on the ultimate prizes of Crimea and Donbas.
“Weather will certainly affect logistics and there will be a natural effect,” said former Ukrainian defense minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk. News week. “But I don’t think Ukraine will slow down counter-offensive operations.”
“It is not in Ukraine’s interest to allow the Russians a rest period,” added Zagorodnyuk, now chairman of the Center for Defense Strategies think tank. “They will use it to improve their defense lines across the front, to repair and replenish troops. We won’t give them that chance.’
Oleksandr Danylyuk, the former head of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, who took up arms as part of a special operations unit after the invasion of Russia, told News week from Kiev: “We will take every opportunity to move forward.”
“We learned in Kharkiv Oblast that once you start pushing, you can’t stop, otherwise we’ll let the Russians regroup,” added Danylyuk, the co-founder and head of the Center for National Resilience and Development think tank. referring to Ukraine’s lightning strike through Russian lines in the northeast of the country that began in September.
“In Kharkiv, the general approach was attack, attack, don’t stop fighting, look for the weak spots. That was a very successful tactic. At the moment it’s very similar… It doesn’t mean that we will just blindly continue to attacking Russian positions. We are always looking for weak spots. And there are plenty.”
Russian troops are certainly in the background. Kherson has fallen, putting Ukrainian troops within artillery range of the main logistical routes feeding Crimea. The Ukrainian advance is underway – albeit slowed – in northeastern Luhansk Oblast. Desperate Russian attacks in Donetsk, especially around the city of Bakhmut, trade heavy losses for meager gains.
Moscow sends hundreds of thousands of mobilized fighters to the front, although many publicized problems with discipline, training and equipment suggest they are of little use beyond closing gaps in the lines.
Russian troops are digging in, as evidenced by satellite imagery and open-source intelligence showing new trenches and fortified positions close to the front, plus reports of garrison reinforcements in key cities such as Melitopol and Mariupol.
Between now and the middle of winter, Ukrainian troops will have to contend with rain, mud and entrenched defenders.
“On the Ukrainian side, the war will certainly not stop, they will be relentless,” Mark Voyger, a former special adviser on Russian and Eurasian affairs to then-commander of the US Army Europe, General Ben Hodges, told me. News week.
But the conditions will pose a serious challenge. “At some point the rain will start and the ground will get muddy,” said Voyger – now a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for European Analysis and a professor at the American University Kyiv. “It comes down to whether you can actually move around in this pervasive mud.”
Ukrainian forces have demonstrated their ability to maneuver in small groups and under difficult conditions, aided by donated Western and indigenous light armored vehicles, including the famous American “Humvee”.
“I imagine that the new transportation systems that the Ukrainians have will give them confidence, on top of the momentum and fighting spirit and everything else,” Voyger said. “They can really move and move faster.”
Kiev’s troops also have home field advantage. “They know the terrain better, but the fact that they can operate in smaller groups and take initiative is actually a very, very positive effect of something else; their flexible, almost decentralized mission command, as we have it in the west,” said Voyager.
“For the Russians, what matters is how good their defense is in the areas they have chosen to protect,” Voyger added, pointing out that effective preparation could mean high casualties for Ukrainian attackers.
“The longer you wait, the more the Russians will entrench themselves,” he said. “It’s probably better for the Ukrainians to keep going while the Russians are confused.”
Danylyuk acknowledged that Russia’s “deep defense” will “slow down” Ukrainian movement. Compared to the collapse of Kharkiv in Moscow, “they are in a better position to hold us,” Danylyuk said of the fighting in Kherson and Donbas. “But we know the weak spots and we will continue to attack and harass them.”
“If we stop, we’ll let them attack us elsewhere, which we don’t want to do.”
The current fighting is taking place across the Ukrainian steppe, with Russian troops defending rolling hills to the east and flat, exposed terrain to the south. Russian units have to dig trenches or seek shelter in destroyed settlements as much as possible.
Britain’s Defense Intelligence Agency has noted that freezing temperatures, shorter days and wet weather will all make offensive operations more dangerous. “Forces lacking winter clothing and accommodation are most likely to suffer from non-freezing cold injuries,” the agency said in a statement. an update this week.
The weather, it said, will “additionally challenge the already low morale of the Russian armed forces, but also pose problems for equipment maintenance”.
Numerous media reports and evidence from the front suggest that Moscow is struggling to properly equip its troops. Erik – who declined to give his full name for security reasons – is a 26-year veteran of the US special forces who now trains Ukrainian troops as a volunteer for the Mozart troupe.
“What happens to most armies in the winter is that the lines stabilize; there’s not much movement and it becomes more intimidation and artillery duels,” said Erik, who served on a special forces team in the mountains targeting on winter warfare. News week up close to the front. “Then most of your casualties are because you’re in the trenches—disease and all.”
“The Russians are absolutely not prepared for that,” he said. “When it comes to those reservists, I think it will hurt the Russians more than the Ukrainians.”
NATO countries have been gathering cold-weather supplies for their Ukrainian partners, who Erik says are well aware of the danger. “One thing we’ve really started to push in every training session is field work and how to work in the winter,” he said.
“It affects everything down to lubricants for your guns and what kind of boots you should wear,” Erik added.
The motivational rift between the two sides will shape the battles to come. “It will be difficult for the Russians to motivate these mobilized reserves,” said Danylyuk. “The propaganda story doesn’t work very well anymore.”
Always eager to take on the invaders, Ukrainian troops will be buoyed by recent victories and will not fall back on static artillery duels. “I remind myself sometimes, you’re just sitting in the trenches and you feel like you can’t do anything; you just sit there and try to survive the shelling,” Danylyuk said.
“When the offensive operations started, it really opened up opportunities for the military to deliver, to show how they are different from the Russians, and to push the Russians away. This is incredibly motivating.”
In January and February, the Ukrainians – and perhaps the Russians too if they can reconstitute and rearm their forces sufficiently – will try to use frozen ground and waterways to attack.
“Winter has never been the season without war,” said Voyger. “When the ground is frozen, normal heavy armor can move more freely.” The Russians still have huge reserves of military equipment, including tanks and other armored vehicles, but punishing losses and logistical problems will undermine operations.
“Purely theoretically, they can do it,” Danylyuk said of renewed Russian offensives. “The real problem is not the harm we did to them by killing or destroying resources. I think it’s general morale… the regime is the biggest problem. They won’t be able to mobilize and mobilize people. motivate. And soldiers who are not motivated on the field are virtually useless.”
The Russian missile offensive against civilian and infrastructure targets across the country will continue as long as Moscow has the weapons to do so. But the military situation at the front – where the war will be won or lost – does not look good for President Vladimir Putin.
“He will make life more difficult for Ukrainian citizens, but how is he going to attack the troops on the ground? Frankly, I don’t see any good options for him.”