Winning the War in Ukraine, Part #3
The much decorated World War II British General, Bernard Montgomery, famously observed: ‘Rule 1, on page 1 of the book of war, is: “Do not march on Moscow.” Various people have tried it, Napoleon and Hitler, and it is no good.”’. What does this time-honoured quote about the perils of Nazi Germany’s attempted land conquest of Russia have to do with the Russian invasion of Ukraine? The answer is that what frustrates and defeats land armies in their attempts to conquer the massive steppes between eastern Poland, through Ukraine, and into western Russia, is the abysmal regional winter, the vast distances one needs to cover as an invading army, the unforgiving flat open spaces, ideal for artillery and airborne attacks and for opposing armies to become bogged down in the fighting over the tiniest of settlements, the lack of strategic geographical advantages in such extended an unvarying territory, and the net result that armies doing battle in the region seldom make any fast progress.
So it has been with the Russian invasion of Ukraine since late February 2022. Despite superficially advantageous initial manoeuvres in the course of the invasion of Ukrainian territory, seizing the cities of Kherson and Melitopol and the Zaporizhzhia nuclear complex at Enerhodar without significant use of force; and the seizure of Mariupol with significant force and with many resulting deaths and much destruction, the colossal Russian Armed Forces have actually been able to annex far less Ukrainian territory than one might have imagined. The first six months were essential, as they are in any international conflict, in cementing an aggressive push into Ukrainian territory and annexing as much of Ukraine’s territory as they could. However it was far less than even the Russian Armed Forces imagined that they might be able to achieve. They launched assaults on Kyiv, Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia, but were unable to seize any of these cities. After much equivocation, and resistance from a recalcitrant local population, the Russian Armed Forces were compelled to abandon Kherson in November 2022, following which they intentionally flooded the city some months later by blowing up the dam upstream on the Dnieper River at Nova Kakhovka. The Russian Armed Forces now sit uneasily on the east bank of the Dnieper River, facing the city of Kherson but having lost the metropolis and its all-important railhead to the armed forces of free Ukraine.
So for all their imagined military might, cutting-edge technology and superior numbers, the Russian Armed Forces proved unable to seize very much Ukrainian territory beyond that they had already seized in their 2014 occupation of the Crimean peninsula and seizure of portions of Donbas territory in southeast. The borders of Crimea have remained unchanged since 2014, and to a great extent so has the front line in Donbas. The actual net gains of the Russian Armed Forces since February 2022 have been somewhat paltry in proportion to the massive efforts Russia has devoted to Ukraine’s military conquest. Russia’s goals to create a land corridor between Donbas and Transnistria, the breakaway pro-Russian region of Moldova, to the west of the southwestern Ukrainian port and beach city of Odessa, have been thwarted. This is in large part due to the heroism and determination of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in preventing the takeover of Mykolaïv, the former Soviet shipbuilding city sitting near the mouth of the Yuzhny Bug River, between Odessa and Kherson.
Mykolaïv has always been a profoundly divided city: a secret metropolis, off-limits to foreigners during the Soviet Union, constructed and populated by Russians amidst mass population movements by Stalin and his successors after the end of World War II and the devastation that had caused 25 per cent of Ukraine’s population to be wiped out. Therefore the population of Mykolaïv are instinctively Russian-leaning in large part, by reason of their imagined Soviet romanticism, and the Russian Armed Forces imagined that peaceful occupation of the city would be a straightforward affair from which to launch an assault on Odessa and completion of their Transnistria corridor project. In the event, this Novorossian fantasy was never concluded, and that is due to the determination of the Ukrainian Armed Forces to defend Mykolaiv at all costs and to take advantage of the city’s strategic defences, situation at the confluence of two rivers, to repel the Russian ground invasion.
Being unable to take Mykolaïv, the Russian Armed Forces realised they could not sustainably continue to occupy Kherson either, given the latter city’s proximity to the former (just some 30 minutes to the southeast by road) and the logistical dependance of Kherson upon Mykolaïv. Hence the Russians abandoned the city of Kherson, at one stage the jewel in their imagined crown of territorial annexation, after just a few months. Now a stalemate has emerged, in the second stage of the conflict, and the Russian Armed Forces are bogged down in trench warfare near Zaporizhzhia and in the vicinity of the contested city of Bakhmut, in Donetsk Oblast in the east. In other words, the Russian military offensive in Ukraine has ground to a halt and now the far smaller but more motivated and increasingly well supplied Ukrainian Armed Forces, supported by Ukraine’s western allies, is engaged in substantial counter-offensives along the front line. Russia is clearly worried about this, and that concern has led to curiously Russian political events such as the apparent murder of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the sometime commander of the paramilitary / mercenary Wagner Group, and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu’s recent statements expressing the Russian Armed Forces’ determination to devote more resources to protecting the status quo on the front line near Zaporizhzhia.
All things considered, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been something of a military flop. However morally outrageous both Ukrainians and the West have found it (and they are right to have done so, given all the needless deaths and suffering it has caused); and no matter how much the invasion has played into the political agenda of Russian President Vladimir Putin in murdering or intimidating his perceived political opponents, in military terms the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a flop.
Why did Russia commence her invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022? The careful historian of recent events will recall that the invasion was preceded by a substantial build-up of Russian military forces along the Russian and Belarusian borders with Ukraine over several months. The reason for all this forward planning was surely because the Russians knew that Montgomery’s famous adage holds true in reverse: the Russian Armed Forces can move west only during the summer months in Ukraine, in which the terrain is not frozen or bogged down with mud and rain and hence they had a limited window for effective territorial occupation before the winter of 2022 set in. The first six months of the war were bloody, and many civil conflicts begin in the early spring for precisely the same reason: the weather. It is impossible to make effective progress in land warfare in Europe in the winter, particularly in the northerly, flatter parts of Eastern Europe, because the weather is too great an inhibitor to an army’s advance in the abysmal cold, rain and snow. Therefore such territory as Russia might be able to annex and secure would be annexed in the first six months; and so it came to pass.
The reason the Russians announced the abandonment of the city of Kherson in November 2022, and subsequently voluntarily renounced Kherson and left it for the Ukrainian Armed Forces to enter without resistance, was that they had been unable to secure their occupation of the city with sufficient logistical integrity before the winter came. The Russians understood that in the winter period, without a logistical supply line adequate to survive the winter months, their forces stationed in the city would be subject to relentless attacks by the Ukrainian Armed Forces that they would be unable to resist effectively; and they would lose the hearts and minds of the citizens of occupied Kherson who they would not be able to feed and provide energy and other essential resources to over the course of the long and cruel southern Ukrainian winter. Hence they abandoned the city to the Ukrainians; ruined the city to leave it as a Ukrainian problem; and left the West to fund its reconstruction: something that is now happening painfully slowly but it is happening. This represents the breathtaking cynicism with which the Russian Armed Forces have proved themselves capable of acting.
The winter is the great leveller in land wars across the Russian-Ukrainian steppes, and Montgomery well knew this. Just as western armies cannot march on Moscow by reason of the fear and devastation entailed by trying to fight through the winter season, for all their imagined technological superiority, neither can the Russian Armed Forces push through Ukrainian territory any further than they already have done. What happened in the spring, summer and autumn of 2022 was that the Russians proceeded as far as they were realistically able to do so; and then they ground to a halt amidst the winter of 2022 / 2023 and they have been unable to proceed substantially any further in the summer season of 2023. Now the winter of 2023 / 2024 is fast approaching, and the Russians are again in trouble. Already in eastern and southern Ukraine temperatures are beginning to drop at night, even though they remain higher during the day. Within a few weeks, and by early November at the latest, temperatures will have plunged sufficiently to inhibit fighting significantly. The trenches and minefields through which both sides are fighting will dissolve into baths of mud amidst the rains. A few weeks after that, the ground will freeze over and thereafter significant front line fighting will become essentially impossible. Moreover much mechanical and even electronic equipment will become unusable, as temperatures plunge, supplies such as gasoline freeze and electronic circuitry freezes over.
Hence the forthcoming winter, while representing a humanitarian crisis as vulnerable Ukrainians again go through the ordeal, as they did in the winter of 2022 / 2023, of being unable to heath themselves in their homes; and finding supply lines frozen for essential commodities, also represents a new lull in the fighting and hence an opportunity for the parties to reflect upon the relative strengths and weaknesses of their positions. The fact is that the Russian Armed Forces have made no significant progress in the fighting months of Spring through Autumn 2023, because the Ukrainian Armed Forces took advantage of the winter of 2022 / 2023 to dig themselves in and fortify their front line positions. This pattern seems likely to be repeated in the winter of 2023 / 2024, save that Ukraine will be in a stronger position because she has spent much of 2023 fortifying her infrastructure for supply of power and essential humanitarian commodities to her frontline populations without dependency upon Russian hydrocarbon supplies. Therefore, we may reliably hope, the humanitarian criss facing Ukraine in the forthcoming winter may not be nearly so severe as it was last winter.
Fighting, for all practical purposes, comes to an end in the winter months in both Ukraine and in Russia. Modern military technology cannot cope with the relentless cold weather, in which temperatures can drop as low as -25 celsius on a regular basis. Neither can the soldiers. Hence in the winter months, everyone goes to ground and there is little in the way of front line movement. Missiles, shelling and other aerial bombardments are also reduced in frequency because the equipment freezes over.
Let us hope, but by no means be certain, that the coming 2023 / 2024 winter months are sufficient to assist both sides in this mindless war of aggression on the part of the Russian Federation to lay down their guns. The West should certainly push for a peace process during the winter months, while both sides inhale a sense of helplessness that nothing much can be done to advance either side’s strategic objectives before the end of the winter season. This represents an opportunity for a lull in the fighting; a reduction in the killing; and and opportunity to take stock and seek to bring this pointless conflict to a conclusion. Montgomery is quite right; it is mindless to engage in land war across the territories of the Russian and Ukrainian steppes. It can bring nothing but military grief and egregious human suffering. The coming winter may represent a genuine opportunity to bring the Russian invasion of Ukraine to a peremptory conclusion, if the right set of pressure and incentives can be applied to both sides.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.