A Blog by Jonathan Low


Dec 5, 2022

How Cold Weather Gear and Equipment Give Ukraine A Winter Advantage Over Russia

NATO countries have been sending cold weather gear to Ukraine since the weather began to turn in October. The country has provided most units with rudimentary but effective stoves for their tents and dugouts. 

But new Russian conscripts are reportedly having to buy their own winter clothing, sleeping bags and tents. Discomfort could be a crucial factor. JL 

Dan Sabbagh reports in The Guardian:

A key element of the winter struggle will be who has the best kit. Donations have been pouring in from western allies. Canada said it would send 500,000 items of winter clothing, Germany 100,000 warm jackets, Britain 25,000 full sets, with Nordic countries also contributing. The real questions come for the Russians. Russian media are full of stories of newly mobilised conscripts in the frontline having to buy their own thermal gear and sleeping bags, even stoves for basic heating.  “It is easy to become demoralised in the cold."

Winter has arrived. Temperatures in the frontline Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, under remorseless attack from the Russians, plunged to -11C (12.2F) this weekend, and at no point got above freezing. Gradually the mud and rain of late autumn will give way to snow and cold of -20C or worse. Yet both sides have their reasons to carry on fighting.

The weather is a neutral party to the near-10-month war, but in winter it inevitably acts as a constraint. Simple operations take far longer to conduct in the cold, cover from foliage is reduced or eliminated, white camouflage is required when snow has arrived and more rations are needed because soldiers consume more calories.

Shelter and warmth is vital, above all because the armies have to ensure soldiers can dry once they get wet, or they will risk hypothermia or frostbite. A report from Channel 4 News on the Donbas frontline concludes in the kind of well-prepared, deep-dug warm bunker required for winter troops, complete with a kitten to hunt down the inevitable mice.

“Training, morale and leadership become critical,” says Ben Barry, a former British army tank commander who served in Bosnia with the Nato postwar stabilisation force during the chilly winter of 1995-96. “It is easy to become demoralised in the cold: imagine a badly run skiing holiday, without good organisation and equipment. In Bosnia, I saw shivering local soldiers who were disinclined to do anything other than go back to their bunkers and drink.” 


A key element of the winter struggle will be who has the best kit, and donations have been pouring in from western allies. Canada said in October it would send 500,000 items of winter clothing, Germany 100,000 warm jackets, Britain 25,000 full sets, with Nordic countries also contributing. For the Ukrainians, the challenge will be ensuring the kit reaches the frontline. 

The real questions come for the Russians. The country has some elite cold weather forces, although its 80th Separate Arctic Motor Rifle Brigade has been fighting in Ukraine since July so will be inevitably degraded. Russian independent media and military bloggers are full of stories of newly mobilised conscripts, routinely deployed in the frontline, having to buy their own thermal gear and sleeping bags – even pleading for stoves for basic heating.

However, in the past week there have been reports that Russian An-124 transport aircraft visited China nine times in a week at the end of November, with some turning off their flight-tracking devices. Orysia Lutsevych, from the Chatham House thinktank, said there were “rumours that the planes contained winter clothing for troops” to help Russia make up for domestic shortfalls.

Simplistic stories about Russian victories in 1812 and following the German invasion in 1941 may make for good Kremlin propaganda, but in this war it is the Russians who are the invaders. Russian rail-dominated supply lines stretching into Ukrainian territory that remain vulnerable to Himars rockets, and Moscow’s generally suboptimal performance in the war throughout suggest its soldiers will be by far the most vulnerable. 

Meanwhile, the situation on the battlefield resembles that of May and June. In Donbas, the fighting then was in Sievierodonetsk and is now in nearby Bakhmut, where up to 20,000 Russian troops relocated from now-abandoned Kherson are reinforcing a renewed effort to take the city in an artillery-led offensive. Here, the invaders appear to be finally making gradual advances to the east and south of the city.

Bakhmut has no strategic value but some in Ukrainian circles think the Russian theatre commander, Gen Sergei Surovikin, may have promised Vladimir Putin that he would capture the rest of the Donbas in return for being allowed to give up the strategically vulnerable Kherson. It is plausible, but even if Bakhmut falls, the final target cities of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk are 20-25 miles (32-40km) away and progress has been slow.

Defending Bakhmut will be costly but Ukraine’s commanders are likely to be happy to try to let the Russians wear themselves out in the fight while, as happened in September, probing across the length of the front for thinly held areas. Tentative reports of withdrawals in Zaporizhzhia, noted by the Institute for the Study of War, “may suggest that Russian forces cannot defend critical areas amidst increasing Ukrainian strikes”, although it is hard to be certain.

Ukraine will want to attack to show it still has momentum after its success in Kherson, but needs colder weather still. Mobility is almost impossible when the ground is as muddy as it is now and the temperature hovers near zero. Vehicles are forced on to roads – and can be easily picked off, as the Russians found to their cost in the failed attempt to take Kyiv in the spring.

But opportunities emerge for the defenders when the ground freezes at lower temperatures, allowing wheeled vehicles to work cross-country, the kind of flexibility needed to make a fresh breakthrough possible.

Kyiv will have to do so against a backdrop of the still-worsening humanitarian situation, in which continuous and cruel attacks against Ukraine’s electricity grid have left large parts of the country with intermittent power and about half of its electricity grid damaged. But this, though exceptionally serious, is likely to have a lesser impact on the frontline, where there is heavy use of fossil fuel-fired generators to keep troops warm.

What remains uncertain is how far Ukraine can assemble enough combat mass at a key sector of the front. Victories in September in the Kharkiv region and in Kherson in November were achieved against forces on the wrong side of major rivers, and in each case the Russians staged a retreat. Both sides also know spring, not winter, could be decisive, meaning it will be more important to get through winter in good order, than to achieve an immediate victory.


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