“Relenting” Ukrainian troops see golden opportunity in Winter War

Ukrainian leaders remain optimistic about plans to liberate all occupied territories even as winter looms, desperate conditions on the home front and a slowdown – or even halt – of counter-offensives in the south and east.

“We will fight as long as we have the strength,” Commander-in-Chief of Ukraine’s Armed Forces General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi said after the recent liberation of the key southern city of Kherson. “Our goal is to liberate the entire Ukrainian country from Russian occupation. Under no circumstances will we stop on this path.”

The first winter snow fell in several parts of Ukraine on Thursday. International observers are expecting new challenges as freezing winter temperatures follow rain and mud.

But Ukrainian forces have repeatedly muddled the expectations of those in the east and west. Kyiv will try to deliver more surprises in the coming months with an eye on the ultimate prices of Crimea and Donbass.

The Ukrainian army wants to advance
Soldiers of the Ukrainian Armed Forces of the 92nd Mechanized Brigade in the Kharkiv region February 10, 2022 and a young boy stand atop a wrecked car and wave a Ukrainian flag at a former Russian checkpoint at the entrance of Kherson as local residents celebrate on February 13, 2022 in this combination image. November 2022 the liberation of the city.

“The weather will certainly affect logistics and there will be some natural effects,” said former Ukrainian Defense Minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk news week. “But I don’t think Ukraine will delay the counteroffensive.”

“It’s not in Ukraine’s interest to give the Russians a break,” added Zagorodnyuk – now chairman of the Defense Strategies Center think-tank. “They will use it to improve their front line defenses, recover and replenish troops. We will not give them such an opportunity.”

Oleksandr Danylyuk, the former head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council who took up arms after the Russian invasion as part of a special forces unit, said news week from Kyiv: “We will use 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, who is a co-founder and head of the think tank Center for National Resilience and Development , add. He is referring to Ukraine’s lightning strike through Russian lines in the north-east of the country, which began in September.

“In Kharkiv, the general approach was attack, attack, don’t stop fighting, look for weak points. It was a very successful tactic. Right now it’s very, very similar… It doesn’t mean that we will just blindly attack Russian positions . We are always looking for weak points. And there are many of them.”

“Penetrating Mud”

The Russian armed forces are certainly behind. Kherson fell, bringing Ukrainian forces within artillery range of the main logistics routes serving Crimea. The Ukrainian advance in the north-eastern Luhansk region continues, albeit at a slower pace. Desperate Russian attacks in Donetsk – particularly around the town of Bakhmut – are trading heavy losses for meager gains.

Moscow is sending hundreds of thousands of mobilized fighters to the front line, although well-publicized problems with discipline, training and equipment suggest they are of little use beyond plugging gaps in the lines.

Russian forces are digging in, satellite imagery and open-source information revealing new trenches and reinforced positions near the front lines, as well as reports of garrisons being reinforced in key cities like Melitopol and Mariupol.

Until the mid-winter frosts, Ukrainian forces must contend with rain, mud and entrenched defenders.

“On the Ukrainian side, the war will certainly not stop, they will be relentless,” said Mark Voyger, a former special adviser on Russian and Eurasian affairs to then-US Army Europe commander Gen. Ben Hodges news week.

A Ukrainian soldier celebrates the liberation of Cherson from Russia
A Ukrainian soldier stands amid local residents during the liberation ceremony in the city center November 13, 2022 in Kherson, Ukraine.
Andrii Dubchak/Donbas Frontliner via Zaborona/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

But the conditions will present a serious challenge. “Eventually it will rain 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 depends on whether you can actually move in this omnipresent mud.”

The Ukrainian Armed Forces have demonstrated their ability to maneuver in small groups and in difficult conditions, supported by donated Western and indigenous light armored vehicles, including the famous American “Humvee”.

“I would imagine that the new transport systems will give Ukrainians confidence, in addition to the dynamism and fighting spirit and everything else,” Voyger said. “They can actually move, and faster.”

Kiev’s troops also have home advantage. “They know the terrain better, but the fact that they can operate in smaller groups and take the initiative is actually a very, very positive effect of something else; their flexible, almost decentralized mission leadership, as we call it in the West,” said Voyger.

“For the Russians, it will be about how well their defenses are in the areas they have chosen to protect,” Voyger added, noting that effective preparation could mean heavy 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 advancing while the Russians are in disarray.”

Danylyuk acknowledged that Russia’s “deep defense” will “slow down” Ukrainian movement. Compared to Moscow’s collapse in Kharkiv, “they are in a better position to hold us,” Danylyuk said of the fighting in Kherson and Donbass. “But we know the weak points and will continue to attack and harass them.”

“If we stop, we’ll let them attack us somewhere else, which we don’t want.”

Deadly Freeze

The current fighting is taking place in the Ukrainian steppe, with Russian troops defending rolling hills to the east and flat, exposed terrain to the south. Russian units must either dig trenches or take cover in destroyed settlements.

The British Defense Intelligence Service has found that freezing temperatures, shorter days and wet weather will make offensive operations more dangerous. “Forces lacking winter weather clothing and shelter are at high risk of suffering from non-freezing cold injuries,” the agency said in an update in this week.

The weather, it said, will “additionally challenge the already low morale of the Russian armed forces, but will also pose problems for equipment maintenance.”

Countless media reports and evidence from the front indicate that Moscow is struggling to properly equip its troops. Erik – who declined to give his full name for security reasons – is a 26-year-old US Special Forces veteran who is now a volunteer with the Mozart Group training Ukrainian troops.

“What happens with most militaries during the winter is that the lines stabilize; there is not much movement and there is more chicanery and artillery duels,” said Erik, who served in a mountain special forces team focused on winter warfare news week from the front. “Then most of your casualties will be in the trenches – diseases and so on.”

“The Russians are definitely not prepared for that,” he said. “As for these reservists, I think it will do more damage to the Russians than to the Ukrainians.”

Ukrainian vehicles in the liberated village of Kherson in November
Ukrainian military vehicles are pictured in a liberated village November 11, 2022 in Blahodatne, Ukraine. Lightly armored vehicles could prove crucial to facilitate operations in difficult autumn and winter conditions.
Andrii Dubchak/Donbas Frontliner via Zaborona/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

NATO countries have been gathering cold-weather supplies for their Ukrainian partners, who are aware of the danger, Erik said. “One thing that we’ve really pushed in every training session is field craft and how to operate in the winter,” he said.

“It affects everything down to lubes for your guns and what kind of boots you wear,” added Erik.

The motivational divide between the two sides will shape the battles to come. “It will be difficult for the Russians to motivate these mobilized reserves,” Danylyuk said. “The propaganda story doesn’t work that well anymore.”

Ukrainian troops – always eager to take the fight to the invaders – will be buoyed up by recent victories and will be careful not to engage in static artillery duels again. “I remind myself sometimes, you just sit in the trenches and 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 step up, show how they are different from the Russians, and push the Russians away. It’s incredibly motivating.”

In January and February, the Ukrainians – and perhaps the Russians, if they can sufficiently reconstruct and upgrade their forces – will seek to use frozen ground and waterways for attacks.

“Winter has never been a season without war,” Voyger said. “Usually, when the ground is frozen, heavy armor can move more freely.” The Russians still have vast stockpiles of military equipment, including tanks and other armored vehicles, but punishing casualties and logistical problems will undermine operations.

“In theory, they can,” said Danylyuk of renewed Russian offensives. “The real problem isn’t the damage we caused them by killing or destroying resources. I think it’s the general morale… the regime is the main problem. You will not be able to mobilize and motivate people. And soldiers who aren’t motivated on the field are pretty much useless.”

Russia’s missile offensive against civilian and infrastructure targets across the country will continue as long as Moscow has the appropriate weapons. But the military situation on the front lines – where the war is won or lost – does not look good for President Vladimir Putin.

“He will make life harder for Ukrainian civilians, but how will he attack ground forces? I honestly don’t see any good options for him.”

Ukraine tanks in the snow in 2016 Donetsk
This file photo shows a member of a Ukrainian tank battalion ready to climb over a tank January 10, 2016 in the Donetsk region of Ukraine.
Pierre Crom/Getty Images

https://www.newsweek.com/relentless-ukraine-troops-golden-opportunity-winter-warfare-russia-counter-offensive-1760314 “Relenting” Ukrainian troops see golden opportunity in Winter War

Rick Schindler

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