Could the Marshall Mud be Putin’s undoing?

Winter conditions in Ukraine are very different to those experienced in Australia. A mix of rain and bitter cold, climatic conditions colloquially known as General Winter and Marshall Mud have influenced the outcomes of military campaigns throughout history, and dashed the aspirations of Napoleon, Hitler and now Putin.

As their offensives continue in the east and south of Ukraine, the thoughts of the Ukrainian high command will have increasingly turned to the planning for the coming winter: the third since the February 2022 Russian invasion.

The Ukrainians and Russians possess historical proficiency in winter warfare as well as hard-won contemporary experience in the conduct of cold weather military operations. Vehicles struggle in the cold and boggy conditions, impacting logistic support for both sides, while winter temperatures sap the energy from soldiers.

Concealment of equipment and soldiers in winter is difficult, with foliage gone and the darker colours of military vehicles standing out against the snow. The thermal signatures of humans and equipment is easily detected by pervasive sensors. Flying becomes more challenging for both crewed and autonomous aerial vehicles.

Notwithstanding these cold, and wet, conditions, the war will not stop. It will change its tempo, however. What might that mean for the coming months?

The logistics of conflict when snow is falling become more difficult. (AP)

Putin’s theory of victory has evolved

For the Russians, winter will allow for planning their likely 2024 offensive campaigns.

Just as Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces General Valary Gerasimov did at the beginning of this year, the Russians may want to start with offensives in January 2024. As such, General Gerasimov will be considering priorities for these offensives, where to employ residual experienced units, and the myriad of preparations needed for next year.

The Russians will also be stockpiling stores and ammunition for use over winter and for 2024. They will be investing in the measures to protect these, given the Ukrainian talent for finding and destroying such locations.

General Gerasimov — who has been overall Russian commander in Ukraine for longer than any other — will have received clear direction from Putin not to lose. 

Putin’s theory of victory has evolved over the past year. He appears to have decided to prolong the war until Ukraine’s foreign supporters tire of the war.

The Russians already believe there is an ongoing weakening of support for Ukraine in the US and other countries. But for this theory of victory to succeed, General Gerasimov must ensure his army remains a viable force able to defend the ground they currently occupy. To do this, he will continue developing his current defensive positions.

While planning for 2024, Gerasimov will also implement a widescale strike campaign Ukraine. Russia will again seek to destroy civilian infrastructure, especially power and heating.

Degradation of Ukrainian morale remains an objective of the Russian leadership to decrease the legitimacy of the Ukrainian government and reduce its ability to function as an independent state. At the same time, the Russians will be attempting to find and destroy Ukrainian supply depots and troop concentrations.

Russia will want to minimise Ukraine’s ability to conduct a winter strike campaign while also reduce its stocks that might be used in Ukrainian 2024 offensives.


Ukraine has different objectives

Ukraine will have slightly different objectives for the winter months.

First and foremost, Ukraine will want to sustain the operational momentum that has been built by military campaigns over the past six months. While the tempo of ground operations will be reduced due to the rain, Ukraine’s strategic strike campaign using air and naval weapons will pick up some of the slack.

Ukraine will not want a stalemate — real or perceived — to emerge over winter like it did in 2022.

A second objective for winter will be to demonstrate to foreign partners a sense of progress in Ukraine’s 2023 operations.

Despite the grim assessments of some over the past few months, Ukraine is making progress in its ground offensives, holding off a Russian offensive in the north and accelerating its strategic strike campaign. Ukraine now holds the strategic initiative.

Ukrainian diplomatic activity will focus on international support for Ukraine, maintaining the flow of military and economic assistance — and forestalling peace initiatives designed to hand the strategic initiative to Russia.

Finally, Ukraine will want to ensure its people are able to endure the winter conditions.

Ukraine needs to ensure its people can survive the winter conditions.(Reuters: Gleb Garanich )

This has physical and moral dimensions. Russia will almost certainly conduct strikes against civilian infrastructure this winter.

The Russians have increased their arsenal of Iranian designed drones and, as Daniel Baer notes in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Putin “will be ready to do more, many more, of the most horrible things he has already done…In escalating criminal attacks on civilians, he will hope to undermine the ability of Ukrainians to work together, to function, and to see themselves as a nation. Putin will try to break the Ukrainian soul.”

Humanitarian aid, emergency services and air defences will be priorities.

Ukrainians face another difficult test of national will over the coming winter. They continue to defend against an enemy determined to destroy their nation. And while Ukrainians have demonstrated a stoutness of heart, and a stubborn willingness to preserve their culture and sovereignty, they will need ongoing assistance from the West.

The task of re-arming, re-training, and re-stocking for 2024 will need to begin now, and continue at pace over winter. This will ensure that in 2024, Ukraine can continue to liberate the large parts of their nation occupied by Russia.

Importantly, it also provides essential moral support to a people who have endured the unendurable in order to fight to retain the kind of freedoms that we in Australia take for granted.

Mick Ryan is a strategist and retired Australian Army major general. He served in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan, and as a strategist on the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is also a non-resident fellow of the Lowy Institute and at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

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Mick Ryan