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‘General Frost’ is coming: What the cold, dark winter ahead means for the war in Ukraine

Winter weather will slow down the fighting. But don’t expect either side to let up.

Either way, in a war that has already seen many twists and turns in less than nine months, winter will now be a player in whatever comes next.

Maneuvers — in the frost and the “rasputitsa”

Now, however, the momentum of the war has shifted and the Ukrainians are essentially “on offense” while the Russians dig in to defend their positions. This is what Milley was referring to when he predicted the pace of operations to slow in the coming months.

Franz-Stefan Gady, a military analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, who recently returned from a research trip to Ukraine, told Grid, “We already have seen a slowdown in offensive operations by both sides. Both sides are exhausted. However, the front line still remains dynamic as both sides are trying to establish themselves in more advantageous tactical positions for the coming winter months.”

They may be exhausted, but Ukrainian forces have given little indication that they intend to take their foot off the gas. Gady said that depending on weather and supply conditions, we could see an offensive against the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol, about 230 kilometers east of Kherson, in the coming weeks or months.

It’s also worth noting that Russia’s invasion took place near the end of winter during the muddy conditions of Ukraine’s infamous thaw or “rasputitsa.” In deep winter, when the ground freezes, it could actually make maneuvering easier, as long as there’s relatively little snow.

A long winter for Ukrainians

For Viktoriia Novytska, a newspaper journalist from Kherson who has been living in Western Ukraine since the invasion, the liberation of her home city brought “very contradictory feelings.”

While she’s elated that the city was retaken without a destructive final stand by the Russian occupiers, and grateful to the “many warriors [who] gave their lives to make Kherson free,” she told Grid the decision about whether to return home is not easy.

The blackouts are not only a humanitarian issue, but a practical one. Novytska said Ukrainian journalists have been struggling to report and publish their work online without consistent power. “Thank God we have 3G and 4G,” she said. “That helps. But it’s a bit difficult to work from a smartphone.”

Europe’s winter

So far, Europe seems well-placed to ride out the winter — or this winter anyway.

Still, Kluge noted, “We are not out of the woods. If we have a stretch of cold weather, the situation could change very quickly.”

As for Russia’s own economy, it’s facing a variety of pressures related to the war, including sanctions against its financial institutions, the loss of revenue from selling energy to Europe, export controls depriving Russian industries of key materials and labor shortages exacerbated by the “brain drain” that was caused when thousands of young Russians fled Putin’s mobilization order in October.

Still, Kluge said, “I think that there’s still a lot of runway left for the Russian regime. Although there’s some deterioration in the budget, and we will see larger deficits, it’s still not critical. As long as Russia is selling as much oil as it is, the regime is sort of protected from real economic breakdown.”

In short, while both Russia and Europe will suffer the economic consequences of the war this winter — though nothing compared to what Ukrainians are suffering — it’s probably not going to be enough to make either side back down.

Looking ahead

For all the increasing chatter about cease-fires and negotiations, the participants in this war are probably too dug in to abandon their goals.

Even if winter weather makes fighting more difficult, the Ukrainians are unlikely to pause: For the moment, they have the upper hand in the fight. It makes sense to take advantage of their momentum rather than give the Russians a chance to regroup. As long as the Ukrainians are making noticeable progress on a regular basis, it makes it harder for their Western backers to lose interest, no matter how much their populations may grouse about high fuel prices. As for the Russian troops trying to protect what’s left of the territory they captured earlier this year, they’re in for a cold and difficult winter, too, and their president shows few indications that he plans to bring them back home.

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