Winter has been a key player throughout the military history of both Russia and Ukraine, most famously helping to half the advance of both Hitler and Napoleon, but factoring into any number of smaller conflicts too. For its many contributions, the region’s frosty winters have had the nickname “General Frost” or “General Winter” bestowed upon them.
The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine has proven no different, affecting the start of war right up to present, as the tide begins to turn on the invaders and Ukraine reclaims large swathes of territory previously held by enemy forces. Currently, experts on the war expect the onset of winter, and the ensuing muddy terrain, lack of ground cover, and a morale-sapping cold, to slow down the pace of fighting for both sides – which may benefit Russia more than Ukraine at this point. Back at the start of 2022, however, the mild winter temperatures likely held up Russian invasion plans, potentially saving Ukraine from a rapid and devastating defeat. The kind of frozen ground that would typically be present in the marshland of northern Ukraine normally offers hard, fast terrain in January and early February – perfectly primed for a swift invasion – but instead, Russian forces were left waiting for an opportune moment that never arrived.
Mud and soil
The much-anticipated cold never really arrived, and temperatures swiftly began to warm up in late February, brining with it thawing grounds and muddy conditions that are less than ideal for the heavy military vehicles that make up a key part of any modern invasion force.
Locally, this is known as the ‘rasputitsa phenomenon’. Rasputitsa is a term used in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, denoting a specific time of the year – usually springtime, but occasionally autumn – when travel on unpaved roads or across the countryside becomes almost impossible due to the creation of deep, impassable mud from rain or melting snow. This is caused by the poor drainage of underlying clay-laden soils found in the region – known as ‘chernozem’, which is instantly recognisable due to its dark black colour.
Rasputitsa seasons are well known in the region as a defensive advantage in wartime – as with “General Winter”, common nicknames include “General Mud” and “Marshal Mud”. This phenomenon was one of the main issues faced by German advance on the eastern front during the Second World War, particularly during the Battle of Moscow, just as it had been with Napoleon’s advance in 1812. Looking back even further though history, a spring thaw likely prevented the sacking of Novgorod by 13th-century Mongol invaders.
Prior to the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, some analysts identified the logistical challenges of the mud season as a likely hindrance to any large-scale invasion in spring. However, with time running out and no sign of the much-needed frost setting in, Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, hoping to avoid the worst of the rapititsa effect. Of course, as now know, Russian hopes of a swift invasion would prove to be dashed, immediately falling foul of the muddy conditions, with brought the invasion timeline to a standstill. To date, one of the most enduring images of the war has come from its early days, with the impressive, sophisticated Russian tanks stuck in the thick, black Ukrainian soil – hampered by traditional track technologies, offering only marginal benefits over wheels, even with today’s technological advances.
Russian mobile units, and their T-72, T-80 and T-90 tanks in particular, were forced out onto Ukrainian roads, driven out of the countryside by the soil beneath their tracks – including those involved in the Kyiv offensive early in 2022. However, this left them vulnerable to attack from portable anti-tank missiles such as the Javelin and NLAW, which the Ukrainian defenders took full advantage of. At the time, many pointed out the irony of Putin’s invasion force being foiled by the very land it sought to conquer, but it also served as a testament to the poor military and logistical planning on Russia’s part, and the lack of reference from historical failures from battles past. Mobility, whether on foot, horse or vehicle has been the key to success or failure in battle in this region since the peninsular wars and the understanding of manoeuvre warfare.
After the stuttering and faltering of Russia’s invasion force in the early days of the war, weather and terrain conditions stabilised and became less of an ongoing factor. Yet, the damage had been done – by November 2022, Russia’s forces had lost over 1,000 tanks and other armoured vehicles, by some estimates, all but crippling the nation’s expansion ambitions.
Now that the chill of winter is starting to set in for the first time since hostilities broke out, it seems likely that both sides will see a reduction in the violence. While Putin’s forces are likely to continue attacking Ukrainian troops, bases, infrastructure and the electricals grid, this is more likely to come from artillery or air strikes, rather than sending Russian troops into direct combat.
This is echoed by the Russian withdrawal from the strategic city of Kherson in the south of Ukraine in November 2022, with solders leaving the city and relocating to more-defensible positions on the other side of the Dnipro River. US officials believe that this decision was based on concerns that these soldiers would become trapped in the city by Ukrainian forces and cut off from supplies as winter set in.
This winter halt to hostilities could stretch on for the best part of the next six months. Rain and soft ground in late November has already begun to slow the movements of both militaries, creating a second rapititsa since the war began. “You’re already seeing the sloppy weather in Ukraine slow things down a little bit,” said Colin H Kahl, US Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy, told reporters in November 2022. “It’s getting really muddy, which makes it hard to do large-scale offensives.”
In theory, winter conditions tend to benefit the defender, though given that the pace of the war had started to turn in Ukraine’s favour, this may better suit Russian interests. The wet and muddy conditions of early winter will make it more difficult to transport armour and artillery, particularly those mounted on wheels, like the French-supplied CAESER howitzers used by the Ukrainians. The tracks they leave behind also show up clearly in the dark, spongy Ukrainian soil, making them easier for enemy drones to track.
At the same time, as we saw the start of the war and mentioned previously, heavy tanks are particularly vulnerable to the kind of soft ground currently at play. A lack of leaves on the trees leaves troops and tanks exposed, while the water-logged terrain may again force them to move by roadways, channelling armour to predictable routes – leaving the slow-moving tanks vulnerable to portable anti-tank missiles and drones once more, which the Russians are unlikely to have much interest in revisiting.
However, the wind and fog that occurs during the Ukrainian and Russian winters will also somewhat limit the use of drones, which both sides of the conflict have made extensive use of. While military drones more than capable of flying in poor conditions, the civilian observation drones used by both warring parties are not as enduring or manoeuvrable. This will likely not only reduce the accuracy of artillery strikes, but also the detection of enemy movements.
Any heavy armour operating on wheels or steel tracks will find itself hampered in rasputitsa. Only something more modern, offering less ground pressure and all-weather terrain accessibility, could possibly have an impact on how the war is fought and won, and even then it is questionable. But for now, those technologies are rare (Rubber Tracks), seen on only a few upgraded legacy vehicles loaned by supporting NATO forces. They may offer a few surprises but in higher numbers we will only see them on next generation vehicles – to be called into action in future conflicts.
While February 2023 is expected to bring with it the deep ground freeze that the Russians had been hoping for ahead of the invasions, but this time around it is more likely to be the Ukrainians who are preparing to go on the offensive. The muddy terrain of the next few months, however, will give the Russian forces time to dig in and establish thick lines of defence across predictable routes in the territory they still hold – which means that any further reclamation of land by the Ukrainians, unless utilising platforms with enhanced mobility, may well end up soaking that dark black soil a deep red.
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