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9 November 2022

Russia has forgotten history’s lessons about waging war in winter

The Russian president wants to draw this war out; the West must help Ukraine retain its current momentum.

By Katie Stallard

This piece has been updated in light of reports on 9 November that Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, has ordered Russian troops to withdraw from Kherson, representing a significant setback for the Russian offensive in Ukraine.

Just over 100 kilometres west of Moscow, a windswept field marks the site of two crucial battles, fought more than a century apart, as successive invading armies tried and failed to conquer Russia. During the first, in September 1812, Napoleon’s Grande Armée defeated the Russian defenders in a bloody struggle at Borodino, immortalised in Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace, and went on to occupy the present-day capital. But it was a pyrrhic victory. Russia refused to surrender, the bulk of its forces withdrew further east, and Napoleon was forced to begin his own retreat a month later. His poorly supplied troops were devastated by the Russian winter and relentless Cossack raids, resulting in losses on such a scale that he was subsequently forced into exile.

When Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht reached Borodino 129 years later, in October 1941, it fought the Red Army among the monuments to that earlier conflict. (Touring the battlefield in 2014, I saw the shell damage to one of the Napoleonic war memorials inflicted by the later fighting.) The German forces succeeded in breaking through the Soviet lines, but their offensive stalled as the roads turned to mud and they failed to reach Moscow before winter set in. These battles came to occupy a central role in Russian military lore as evidence of the country’s supposed indomitability, thanks to its sheer size – which requires an invading army to maintain supply lines over enormous distances – and its harsh winters, sometimes characterised as “General Winter”, who is fighting on Russia’s side.

[See also: Vladimir Putin’s land grab is an act of desperation]

Yet as winter approaches in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin and his generals appear to have forgotten these lessons. This time, Russia is the invading army that must supply its forces across a front line that now spans 1,000 kilometres, in hostile territory and brutal conditions. As anyone who has experienced a Ukrainian winter could tell you, the bitter cold, with temperatures dropping as far as -20°C, can sap the most determined of spirits. It will make the fighting more difficult for both sides during the months ahead. The tempo of the conflict will slow. Movement and the ability to conceal military equipment will be harder as the leaves fall from the trees and the ground is covered by snow. Both sides will need to keep their exhausted troops and their weaponry functioning. But this will be easier for the Ukrainians, fighting with the support of their countrymen, than for the Russians, left to shiver like the remnants of Napoleon’s Grande Armée and vulnerable to sabotage.

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This war is being fought on multiple fronts, however, and while the winter will make life miserable in the Russian trenches, Putin is likely counting on the cold to help him in other ways. Following the appointment in October of General Sergei Surovikin to lead the offensive, Russian forces have targeted Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, bombarding power and water plants with missiles and drones from Iran. Forty per cent of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure has already been “seriously damaged”, according to President Volodymyr Zelensky, leading to rolling blackouts and rationing. The World Health Organisation has warned of a humanitarian disaster this winter, as the lack of access to heat and electricity due to damaged infrastructure could become a “matter of life or death”.

Unable to defeat Ukraine on the battlefield, Russia’s strategy is to terrorise the civilian population. This will not succeed in breaking the country’s will to fight. In fact, as the University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape explained in a recent essay, the lesson from past bombardments is that they do not lead to a clamour for surrender; in the case of the Blitz during the Second World War, for example, they only contributed to the British determination to counter-attack.

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But then this campaign is not only aimed at Ukraine. Putin is also signalling to the country’s Western supporters that if he cannot defeat Ukraine, he will destroy it. He is questioning how much longer and at what cost the US and its European allies will be prepared to maintain their current levels of economic and military aid. As inflation soars and energy prices bite in European capitals, Putin hopes Western unity will fracture, and Kyiv will be pressured to beg for a ceasefire on his terms. There are reports that the US president Joe Biden lost his temper with Zelensky during a phone call in June, when the Ukrainian leader asked for more help.

If this latest strategy fails to achieve results, Putin will escalate. The attacks on the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea in September, although not definitively linked to Russia, appear to have been intended as a warning about the vulnerability of Europe’s energy infrastructure. On 1 November, Norway raised its military alert level after sightings of unidentified drones near its offshore oil and gas fields. The country is now the EU’s most important supplier of natural gas since Russian imports were cut back. Putin is also likely to ramp up his nuclear threats again if he feels that he is losing ground.

The answer to this extortion must be resolve and a redoubling of support for Ukraine. Putin wants to draw this war out – to limp on towards the spring, when more of his newly mobilised men will be ready to fight and, he hopes, Western solidarity will be fading. The coming winter will be tough, but the momentum is with the Ukrainian forces. This time, General Winter is on their side. The West must help Ukraine to press that advantage.

[See also: How will the Ukraine war end?]

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This article appears in the 09 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, On the brink