On Wednesday, the first snow of the year fell in Kyiv, a stark reminder of what’s in store for the coming months in Ukraine.
As the weather turns colder and the days shorter, nearly all the momentum in the war is on the Ukrainian side. Last week saw what may have been the most consequential setback for Russia’s forces since the invasion last February, as they retreated from the southern city of Kherson. The recapture of Kherson was important not only for its strategic location and symbolic weight (the first major city captured by the Russians fell almost without a fight, just weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared it to be Russian territory “forever”) but also because of the timing. It was a dramatic demonstration of Ukraine’s ability to win heading into a winter that is likely to exact a brutal toll on Ukraine’s civilians and test the resolve of its Western allies.
Just last week, America’s top military commander, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made headlines by saying that winter was likely to slow the pace of fighting in Ukraine, making this a good time to push for peace negotiations. The idea was quickly rejected by the Ukrainian government and walked back by the Biden administration, but if Ukrainian momentum does start to slow in the coming months, there may be more voices arguing that the country’s remarkable resistance has accomplished about as much as can be reasonably expected — and that paths to peace should be explored.
For Russia, which now controls less Ukrainian territory than it has since the first weeks of the invasion, the best remaining hope may be that it can hold the line through the winter, avoiding further serious losses and hoping that “General Frost,” the old nickname for the brutally cold weather that decimated Napoleon and Hitler’s forces, may come through for Moscow one more time.
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”
Generally speaking, winter weather favors the defenders in a war. Rain, snow and mud make it harder to move large vehicles, tanks and heavy artillery — and the invaders are typically the ones who depend more on such movements. The invading Russian forces experienced this last February, with numerous reports of expensive equipment being abandoned in the mud and tanks sticking to roadways where they were easy targets for Ukrainian drones.
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.
And for all the Russian military’s much vaunted historical success fighting in the cold — see any history of the horrific Battle of Stalingrad — social media reports indicate that its newly mobilized troops are facing shortages of basic items like boots, sleeping bags and tents. The Ukrainian military, meanwhile, has been stocking up for the winter, including a recent aid package from Canada that includes $15 million worth of winter clothing. For all the billion-dollar weapons shipments that have poured in, Ukrainian soldiers may appreciate the Canadian gift as much as any.
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.
“Now there is no light, water and heat there,” she said. “We want to come back home very much, but we understand that it is impossible to live there. When the life conditions come back to normal, many people will come back home, even if the Russians continue shooting.”
Kherson is an extreme case, but the basic tasks of lighting and heating homes will be a major issue throughout Ukraine this winter. Since October, Russia has carried out a deliberate strategy of missile and drone strikes targeting Ukraine’s energy infrastructure — particularly electricity substations. Western countries are currently working to bolster Ukraine’s air defenses to prevent these strikes, but around 40 percent of Ukraine’s power grid has already been destroyed.
This has led to rolling blackouts throughout the country, particularly around Kyiv, where half a million people lost power last week. Many Ukrainian towns and cities also rely on Soviet-era centralized heating systems, which are a tempting target for Russian strikes. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko was blunt with residents last week: “We are doing everything to avoid this,” he said, warning residents to prepare for the worst. “But let’s be frank, our enemies are doing everything for the city to be without heat, without electricity, without water supply, in general, so we all die. And the future of the country and the future of each of us depends on how prepared we are for different situations.”
Neighboring countries are not necessarily immune from the effects of Russia’s war on Ukraine’s infrastructure. The Russian barrage targeting Western Ukraine this week damaged power lines supplying electricity to neighboring Moldova, causing blackouts there.
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.”
The fears heading into this winter aren’t limited to Ukraine itself. Russian gas exports to Europe have fallen nearly 90 percent since last year, and oil exports by more than 80 percent, which sent energy prices skyrocketing. While European public sympathy for Ukraine has been high across the board, several countries have already seen large protests over the rising cost of living, and consumer anxiety was a major factor in the recent election of far-right Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. The fear in Kyiv and Washington, and the hope in Moscow, has been that if costs rise this winter or European cities face blackouts or fuel shortages, the remarkable solidarity behind support for Ukraine will start to fray.
So far, Europe seems well-placed to ride out the winter — or this winter anyway.
“We had a very good start to the heating period because the warm weather has delayed it and because the policies that were introduced in spring have been successful,” Janis Kluge, an economic analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told Grid. These policies included measures to encourage consumers and businesses to reduce consumption as well as massive purchases of natural gas from alternative sources. As a result, Europe’s gas stores are more than 90 percent full heading into the winter, the spot price for natural gas at one point dipped below zero in October, and tankers carrying liquefied natural gas are idling outside European ports waiting for the price to rise before they unload their cargo.
“A situation in which we have a gas shortage or will need rationing of gas is looking less and less likely,” Kluge said. Germany, the eurozone’s largest economy, actually surprised many by posting economic growth in the third quarter of this year, and all signs are that consumer confidence is surprisingly high.
Still, Kluge noted, “We are not out of the woods. If we have a stretch of cold weather, the situation could change very quickly.”
The challenge is not so much what European consumers will face this winter, but what this winter will mean for 2023, when gas stocks will have to be refilled without any Russian supply. As the economic historian and columnist Adam Tooze recently put it, writing in Foreign Policy, “The European project is now at the mercy of the weather.”
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.
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.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.