Rain-damp farmland, tire tracks filled with water: since the Ukrainian recapture of the city of Cherson in the first half of November, the mud season in Ukraine has shaped the flood of images from the front in Ukraine. In the south of the country as in the east.
At the same time, according to Kiev Mayor Vitali Klitschko, Russia is bombing people into the “worst winter since the Second World War”. Electricity is only available by the hour almost everywhere in Ukraine.
Kyiv is trying to help people with heat tents and decentralized power generators. In fact, Russia has “already caused some very serious destruction of infrastructure that will not be repaired quickly,” Ukraine and Russia expert Nico Lange from the Munich Security Conference told DW.
Spare parts for destroyed substations and other energy infrastructure are being delivered to Ukraine, but just replacing “specific transformers or certain spare parts” takes a lot of time, according to Lange.
The European Union must prepare for cold refugees from Ukraine, “we shouldn’t just start when we see pictures of frozen people from Ukraine.” Another wave of refugees is part of Putin’s calculations, says Margarete Klein from the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politics (SWP), which advises the German government in Berlin. The Kremlin is trying to drive a wedge between the EU countries, while the willingness to take in more refugees is declining in some EU countries.
But the Russian bombing apparently has another goal: the Russian army urgently needs a break in Ukraine, according to SWP analyst Klein. “They have suffered high material and personnel losses.” Soldiers who were only mobilized in the fall are apparently of little help to the Russian armed forces.
“In order to increase the combat effectiveness of the armed forces, it is not enough to quickly send poorly trained and poorly equipped reservists to the front.” They served primarily as cannon fodder. “In order to better train a possible new wave of reservists,” the Kremlin needs time. “Because many of the potential instructors are in combat.”
Not giving the Russian army this time seems to be the most important strategic goal of the Ukrainian armed forces this winter. As civilians head towards a humanitarian winter catastrophe, sub-zero temperatures could soon give Ukraine military advantages.
In the east of the country, where the Russian army occupies large parts of the Lugansk Oblast (region), the Ukrainian armed forces “are dependent on frozen ground,” says Ukraine expert Nico Lange. In the north-east of the country in particular, the army has “a great many vehicles on wheels”. In order for the Ukrainian army to be able to “play its strength – mobility -” it needs frozen ground.
Because along the front in the east of the country, the Russian army is showing its superiority with mobile grenade launchers, the GRAD system, which was already built in the Soviet Union. With this, the Russian army covers the Ukrainian positions with area-wide grenade fire every day. Russia can constantly reproduce the ammunition. The Ukraine is therefore dependent on hitting these supply routes – with Western artillery on wheels like the German Panzerhaubitze 2000. And that is exactly why it needs frozen, solid ground instead of mud rides.
And indeed, according to the weather report, frost is beginning these days in north-eastern Ukraine. “As soon as the ground freezes, I think there will be more potential from the Ukrainian side,” said Lange. “It seems that they are already waiting for this”, referring to “the axis of attack in the Lugansk region.”
A problem facing the Ukrainian army is to be solved in just a few weeks: the intensive use of western artillery systems is causing a great deal of wear and tear. A repair center for weapons such as the German Panzerhaubitze 2000 should be ready by “mid-December” in Slovakia on the border with Ukraine, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
“The German industry is now – on our behalf – busy with the construction of the service center,” says Lambrecht. “A large spare parts package with around 14,000 parts is provided for this.”
“For Ukraine, it’s all about seizing the momentum. The Ukrainian army has shown that it can very cleverly exploit the weaknesses of the Russian side,” says SWP analyst Margarete Klein. However, the Ukrainian army lacks ammunition, warns Nico Lange from the Munich Security Conference.
“Ukraine, for example, uses rockets for air defense systems faster than they are produced.” This also applies to simple artillery ammunition, which Russia in turn can use indefinitely. Unlike the partly chip-controlled Russian medium-range missiles.
And so this war is now becoming a race for ammunition. Putin is speculating, for so long, that the Ukrainian air defense system will run out of ammunition. At the same time, the 50 states that support the Ukraine contact group, led by the United States, are supplying additional anti-aircraft systems. “Ukraine’s air defense is getting better,” says Lange. Russia is reacting to this and launching even more medium-range missiles and drones at civilian infrastructure in its air war.
However, this is becoming increasingly difficult for the Kremlin. “You saw pictures that missiles that actually belong to the strategic reserve were already being used. And because of the technological sanctions, Russia cannot simply reproduce these missiles because it does not have the chips and the technology to do so.”
The winter phase of Russia’s war against Ukraine is a tug-of-war. The outcome obviously depends on whether Kyiv can relieve the humanitarian need with Western aid, whether the Ukrainian air defenses are further strengthened – and whether the Ukrainian army can disrupt the Kremlin troops on frosty ground with needlesticks along the front line, that they do not rest. Very few experts see the chances of a quick peace in view of the human suffering in Ukraine. On the contrary: “I don’t see any willingness on the Russian side to negotiate seriously at the moment,” says Margarete Klein, an expert on Eastern Europe from the SWP.
Author: Frank Hofmann
The original of this article “Military options on frosty ground” comes from Deutsche Welle.