Ukrainian leaders remain bullish on plans to liberate all occupied territory even as winter looms, threatening desperate conditions on the home front and a slowdown—or even pause—of counteroffensive operations in the south and east.
“We will fight as long as we have the strength,” said commander-in-chief of Ukrainian forces General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi after the recent liberation of the key southern city of Kherson. “Our goal is to liberate all Ukrainian land from Russian occupation. We will not stop on this path under any circumstances.”
The first snow of winter fell in several parts of Ukraine on Thursday. International observers expect fresh challenges as rain and mud are followed by freezing winter temperatures.
But Ukrainian forces have repeatedly confounded the expectations of those to their east and west. Kyiv will be looking to deliver more surprises in the coming months, with an eye on the ultimate prizes of Crimea and the Donbas.
“The weather will certainly impact logistics and there will be some natural effect,” former Ukrainian defense minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk told Newsweek. “But I do not think Ukraine will delay the counteroffensive operations.”
“It is not in the interest of Ukraine to allow any rest period to the Russians,” Zagorodnyuk—now chairman of the Centre for Defence Strategies think tank—added. “They will use it to improve their defense lines across the front, recover and replenish the troops. We shall give them no such opportunity.”
Oleksandr Danylyuk, the former head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council who took up arms as part of a special operations unit following Russia’s invasion, told Newsweek from Kyiv: “We will use any opportunity to advance.”
“We learned in Kharkiv Oblast that once you start to push, you can’t stop, otherwise we let the Russians regroup,” Danylyuk—who is the co-founder and head of the Center for National Resilience and Development think tank—added, referring to Ukraine’s lightning drive through Russian lines in the northeast of the country that began in September.
“In Kharkiv, the overall 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, very similar…It doesn’t mean that we will just go blindly on attacking Russian positions. We’re always looking for weak spots. And there are plenty.”
Russian forces are certainly on the back foot. Kherson has fallen and put Ukrainian forces within artillery range of the key logistics routes feeding Crimea. The Ukrainian advance is ongoing—though slowed—in northeastern Luhansk Oblast. Desperate Russian attacks in Donetsk—particularly around the town of Bakhmut—trade high casualties for meager gains.
Moscow is sending hundreds of thousands of mobilized fighters to the front, though 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, as evidenced by satellite imagery and open-source intelligence showing new trenches and reinforced positions close to the front, plus reports of reinforcement of garrisons in key cities like Melitopol and Mariupol.
Between now and the mid-winter freeze, Ukrainian forces will need to deal with rain, mud, and entrenched defenders.
“On the Ukrainian side, for sure the war will not stop, they will be relentless,” Mark Voyger, a former special adviser for Russian and Eurasian affairs to then-commander of U.S. Army Europe General Ben Hodges, told Newsweek.
But the conditions will pose a serious challenge. “At some point, the rains will begin and the ground will get muddier,” Voyger—now a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for European Analysis and professor at American University Kyiv—said. “It comes down to whether you can actually move in this pervasive mud.”
Ukrainian forces have shown the ability to maneuver in small groups and difficult conditions, helped by donated Western and indigenous light armored vehicles, among them the famed American “Humvee.”
“I would imagine that the new transportation systems the Ukrainians have will give them confidence, on top of the momentum and combat spirit and all the rest,” said Voyger. “They can actually move, and move faster.”
Kyiv’s troops also have home field advantage. “They know the terrain better, but the fact that they are able to operate in smaller groups and take the initiative is actually a very, very positive effect of something else; their flexible, almost decentralized, mission command, as we call it in the West,” Voyger said.
“For the Russians, it will be about how good their defenses are in the areas they’ve chosen to protect,” Voyger added, noting that effective preparation could mean high casualties for Ukrainian attackers.
“The more you wait, the more the Russians will entrench themselves,” he said. “Probably it’s better for the Ukrainians to keep advancing while the Russians are in disarray.”
Danylyuk acknowledged that Russian “deep defense” will “slow down” Ukrainian movement. Compared to Moscow’s Kharkiv collapse, “they’re 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 let them attack us somewhere else, which we don’t want to do.”
The current fighting is taking place across the Ukrainian steppe, with Russian troops defending rolling hills in the east and flat, exposed terrain in the south. Russian units must either dig trenches or find what shelter they can in devastated settlements.
The U.K.’s Defence Intelligence agency has noted that freezing temperatures, shorter days, and wet weather will all make offensive operations more dangerous. “Forces lacking in winter weather clothing and accommodation are highly likely to suffer from non-freezing cold injuries,” the agency said in an update this week.
The weather, it said, will “provide additional challenges to the already low morale of Russian forces, but also present problems for kit maintenance.”
Myriad media reports and evidence from the front suggests Moscow is struggling to properly equip its troops. Erik—who did not wish to give his full name for security reasons—is a 26-year veteran of U.S. special forces now training Ukrainian troops as a volunteer for the Mozart Group.
“What happens with most militaries during the winter is the lines stabilize; there’s not much movement and it becomes more harassment and artillery duels,” Erik—who served in a mountain special forces team focused on winter warfare—told Newsweek from close to the front. “Then most of your casualties happen from being in the trenches—disease and whatnot.”
“The Russians are definitely not prepared for that,” he said. “When it comes to those reservists, I think it’s going to cause the Russians more harm than the Ukrainians.”
NATO nations have been gathering cold weather supplies for their Ukrainian partners, who Erik said are well aware of the danger. “One thing that we have really started pushing in every training session is field craft and how to operate in the winter,” he said.
“It affects everything, down to lubricants for your weapons and what kind of boots to wear,” Erik added.
The motivational gulf between the two sides will shape the battles to come. “It will be difficult for Russians to motivate these mobilized reserves,” Danylyuk said. “The propaganda story doesn’t work that well anymore.”
Ukrainian troops—ever eager to take the fight to the invaders—will be buoyed by recent victories, and keen not to settle back into static artillery duels. “I remember myself sometimes, you’re just sitting in the trenches and you feel there is nothing you can do; 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 perform, to show how they are different from Russians, and push the Russians away. This is incredibly motivating.”
In January and February, the Ukrainians—and perhaps the Russians if they can reconstitute and rearm their forces sufficiently—will be looking to use frozen ground and waterways to attack.
“Winter has never been the season without war,” Voyger said. “When the ground is frozen, normally heavy armor can move more freely.” The Russians still have huge supplies of military equipment including tanks and other armored vehicles, but punishing losses and logistics issues will undermine operations.
“Purely theoretically, they can do it,” Danylyuk said of renewed Russian offensives. “The real problem is not the damage we inflicted on them by killing or destroying resources. I think it’s overall morale…the regime is the main problem. They won’t be able to mobilize and motivate people. And soldiers who are not motivated on the field are pretty much useless.”
Russia’s missile offensive against civilian and infrastructure targets across the country will continue for 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’ll make life harder for the Ukrainian civilians, but how is he going to target the troops on the ground? I don’t see good options for him, frankly.”