As winter approaches, Ukraine prepares to fight on frozen ground

KHERSON REGION, Ukraine – They load the rockets in a grove, sheltered by yellowing leaves. One by one, they are lifted off the bed of a still-running pickup and pushed into the launch vehicle welded to the bed of an adjacent pickup.

A group of Russian soldiers were sighted hiding in a line of trees on the west bank of the Dnipro River about 5 miles to the south. The rockets are for them.

“Fire show,” says a giggling member of a special Ukrainian territorial defense team, nicknamed Badger, as he screws silver primers onto the nose of each missile.

Minutes later and a few miles down the road, next to a field of dead black sunflowers, the rockets lift off in a puff of smoke. Soldiers pile back into the pickup truck and, with a passing honk, rush north out of range of the Russian artillery.

For the past eight months, the war on the Ukrainian front has largely resembled a deadly game of hide-and-seek. Troops, tanks and artillery hide in rows of trees and fire across the flat fields of land while fearing – and dodging – the reconnaissance drones overhead.

Approaching winter could force a change in tactics, say Ukrainian military units and Western security analysts.

“You have nothing to hide [under],” says a soldier from the Territorial Defense Battalion who calls himself Playboy. “You’re so much easier to find.”

NPR only uses the nicknames of some of the soldiers interviewed, as required by Ukraine’s Defense Ministry.

“The war in the winter will depend on effective reconnaissance and artillery,” Playboy continues. “Whoever will be more effective in this part will be much better on the battlefield.”

Winter could offer Ukraine an opportunity to reclaim more land

In the months since its offensive across Ukraine has faltered, Russia has been slowly losing ground. Ukrainian troops recaptured towns and settlements north of Kyiv, then in the north-east and south of the country. Last week, Russia withdrew from the key southern city of Kherson, the region’s only capital to fall into Russian hands in the nearly nine months since they began their all-out invasion.

Ukrainian military officials had signaled their intention to retake the key port city for months, but efforts have been slowed in part due to the autumn weather, Ukrainian forces told NPR. Heavy rains turned roads to mud and limited Ukraine’s ability to move western-supplied weapons systems that have proved crucial in its efforts on all fronts.

The approaching winter could change that, military analysts and Ukrainian troops tell NPR.

“In general, winter in this part of the world favors the attacker,” says Fred Kagan, a military historian at the Institute for the Study of War, a DC-based think tank. And since Russia is on the defensive along most of the front line at this point, he says, “it’s probably beneficial to the Ukrainians if they’re able to prepare mechanized forces in advance for ongoing counterattacks.”

A soldier in the Kharkiv region walks through a trench, his breath sticking out in the cold air.

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NPR

A soldier in the Kharkiv region walks through a trench, his breath sticking out in the cold air.

Frozen ground and icy rivers could present Ukraine with an opportunity to step up its offensive, Kagan says, especially if Russia continues to experience the kind of supply problems that have plagued its failed offensive around the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

Ukrainian soldiers fighting in the Kherson region, who NPR spoke to in mid-October, expressed optimism. They have had slow success retaking land in recent months and believe they can continue to push Russia out of illegally annexed territory – progress that was difficult to confirm until Russia’s announced withdrawal due to a front-line media blackout by Ukraine’s defense ministry imposed areas.

“The Russians know how to fight,” says Maj. Roman Kovalev, who leads a newly formed 500-man battalion on the southern front. “You learn quickly. They are no longer the same forces as they were in spring. It’s hard to fight them.”

Ukrainian soldiers are preparing to launch missiles from the outskirts of the Kherson region at targets in part of the Russian-held region in October.

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NPR

Ukrainian soldiers are preparing to launch missiles from the outskirts of the Kherson region at targets in part of the Russian-held region in October.

Ukraine is preparing for a drop in temperature

On the front lines in the south, east and north of the country, the Ukrainian troops are gearing up for the coming winter and preparing for a longer conflict.

North of Kharkiv, in an area occupied by Russia until September, a group of Ukrainian territorial defenders are preparing emergency lines — armed trenches filled with firewood and hand-welded stoves.

A soldier stands in a carefully sealed and covered room heated with wood at a position north of Kharkiv.

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NPR

A soldier stands in a carefully sealed and covered room heated with wood at a position north of Kharkiv.

Oleh, a territorial defender who worked as a butcher until eight months ago, prepares coffee in an underground shack built from local birch and wood. A biting wind is blowing outside.

“We have everything,” he says. “It’s warm everywhere. That’s not a problem at all.”

His unit was outfitted with cold-weather gear—coveralls, coats, boots, and sleeping bags—to keep the cold at bay.

The US, Canada and Germany have provided Ukraine with winter combat equipment in their latest installments of military equipment. Arming Ukraine with Western weapons and combat gear has been crucial to the country’s successes in the region, Oleh says.

Soldiers smoke near an open door in a building heated by a wood-burning stove in a trench, letting in some cool air.

Claire Harbage/NPR

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NPR

Soldiers smoke near an open door in a building heated by a wood-burning stove in a trench, letting in some cool air.

However, Western military analysts say similar supplies will be needed, especially over the next few months when Ukraine hopes to maintain its territorial gains.

“I think there’s a pattern to talking about the war that I’ve noticed in some people who, like me, have spent a lot of time in Afghanistan thinking about the seasonality of this war,” Kagan says. The pattern, he says, is the belief that fighting will slow as temperatures drop, as has happened in Afghanistan.

“I think we need to get that model out of our heads, because historically that’s not how war works in this part of the world,” says Kagan. “And that’s why I think there’s a very urgent need for us to focus on getting Ukrainians what they need to take advantage of the freezing season.”

When asked whether the coming winter will benefit Russia or Ukraine, Oleh laughs with a cigarette in his mouth. His comrade Ihor steps in.

“This is our country,” he says. “This is our motherland. It helps us.”

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A soldier moves wood to chop for fuel in the trenches in the Kharkiv region.

Claire Harbage/NPR

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NPR

A soldier moves wood to chop for fuel in the trenches in the Kharkiv region.

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