‘Marshal Winter’ is Coming

Sub Title : The winter freeze offers a chance for peace which must be seized

Issues Details : Vol 16 Issue 5 Nov – Dec 2022

Author : Ajay Singh

Page No. : 47

Category : Geostrategy

: December 15, 2022

The counter offensive launched by Ukraine has pushed the Russians on the defensive and forced them to pull back. With winter setting in and both sides having suffered substantial losses there is likely to be a stalemate. This window brings in a chance for peace which must be grasped and seized, not only by the two sides but also by other stake holders for the good of the world

The Ukrainian  Counter Offensive

In 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, their panzer columns swept through the vast expanse of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, reaching the gates of Moscow. So close were they to the capital city that on a clear day, the panzer commanders could see the spires of the Kremlin. However, the vast area the Germans had captured in six months of battle severely over-extended their lines and the  winter was fast  approaching. When it started snowing in November, the Soviets launched their own counter offensive that pushed the Germans almost 200 kilometers back from their hard-earned positions and forced them into a rough defensive line that they held on for the rest of winter. Along that line the front solidified till the spring of the next year, when the campaigning began anew.

Like the Germans, the Russians too had made much headway into Ukraine, capturing almost 15 percent of prime territory (and amalgamating it into their own land through a ‘referendum’). Like the Germans, they too had planned on a short swift campaign and not a long-drawn war. And like them, when the Ukrainian counter-offensive struck, it turned the tables and pushed them on the defensive.

The success of the Ukrainian offensive, both in the East and in the South, has changed the course of the war. It has pushed Russia on the back foot, and for the first time the possibility of its military defeat seems likely. The Ukrainian offensive was brilliantly executed, with a feint in the South in September, that drew out Russian troops from the east and depleted their positions there. When the Ukrainians launched an  offensive in the Northeast, it raced through the ‘stretched and ragged Russian lines’, recaptured the vital communication centers of Lyman, Izium and Kupyansk, and established bridgeheads on the Oskil River that threaten Russian positions in Luhansk and Donetsk. That spectacular offensive was followed up with a renewed thrust in the South which recaptured Kherson on 12 November, providing Ukraine with its greatest victory of the war.

The Ukrainian offensive in the South crept forward in much the same slow manner as the Russians did when they occupied Luhansk and Donetsk. They advanced from North to South along the bank of the Dnieper River and cut off over 30,000 Russian troops west of the river. Faced with isolation, the Russians withdrew, enabling Ukrainian troops to enter Kherson virtually unopposed and without the grim house-to-house fighting that was envisaged. With the fall of Kherson, Russia lost the only provincial capital that it had occupied and this completely unhinged their positions in the south.

Where can the war go from here? The Russians have now consolidated along the eastern bank of the Dnieper River and prepared strong defenses there. The Ukrainians will find it difficult to cross the two-kilometer-wide river, more so since the retreating Russians have blown up all the bridges. But with Kherson under their belt, perhaps the Ukrainians can launch an even more ambitious offensive from the north of Kherson – in the area of Zaporizhzhia (which has seen some heavy fighting around the critical nuclear plant). That offensive – apparently favored by Zelensky himself – could strike southeast towards Melitopol and Mariupol, regain the coastal areas and cut off the Russian land bridge to Crimea. But that ambitious offensive, if launched, would meet strong defensive positions occupied by some of  Russia’s best troops and face the danger of being over-extended and cut-off.  And there is just a small window to attain their offensive aims, before winter sets in, which would then make large scale operations difficult.

The front has now stabilized along the line of the Oskil River in the northeast and the Dnieper River in the south. In the northeast the Ukrainians can still push ahead from the bridgeheads they have established across the river. But do they have the capabilities to sustain the offensive? After three months, the offensive seems to have reached culmination point. They are low on ammunition and have suffered heavy casualties to men and equipment. It is estimated that they have lost around 60-80,000 men (dead, wounded and prisoners) and though Ukraine has a pool of over 2/3,00,000 willing recruits they need to be trained and equipped before they can join the front lines around December. Though major offensives may be difficult, they would still launch local attacks to improve their overall position and regain vital territory before winter solidifies the front.

There is one more factor. The US and western allies that provide the aid, ammunition and intelligence to Ukraine to power their offensive operations would not want the Ukrainians to make such spectacular gains that Russia is pushed to the brink and forces Putin to take drastic, desperate measures to salvage the situation (perhaps the use of weapons of mass destruction which has been threatened so often). That could force NATO to get involved directly – something it does not want to do. The longer the war continues the greater are the chances of it escalating. The firing of two missiles into Poland (which were later proved to be Ukrainian) shows how an even  small situation could inadvertently escalate way out of control. There are two schools of thought on this; one that feels that Ukrainian gains should be followed up till Russia is completely defeated, another that feels that the time has come for a negotiated peace.

Russia’s Winter Strategy

‘Marshal Winter’ has a great bearing on Russian calculations as well, and it seems to be using it to stabilize its lines. Satellite images show the construction of huge concrete obstacles ‘Dragon’s teeth’ and zig-zag lines of trenches and fortifications in the areas they hold (roughly along river lines and natural obstacles). Like the Ukrainians, they have had heavy casualties and their troops are exhausted after months of battle. Their depleted units and formations can only be reinforced around December when the hastily trained conscripts arrive. They too are running low on ammunition (as their turning to Iran and North Korea indicates). And while they too are launching small scale attacks to improve their overall position, another full-scale offensive seems difficult. Perhaps they too are expecting a pause on operations in the winter and will use the period to consolidate.

But  Russia is using  the winter pause in another way. On 15 November, when the first snowfall hit Kyiv, Russia launched a flurry of over a hundred missiles that destroyed over 80 percent of Kyiv’s energy and water infrastructure. All across Ukraine energy resources have been targeted and destroyed, reducing electric supply to less than four hours every day and forcing residents to go to metro stations just to charge their mobiles. Devoid of electrical supply or heating, Ukrainians brace for a very cold winter. Europe too has its gas completely cut off after the sabotage of the Nord Stream I and Nord Stream II pipelines and will face a severe energy crisis this winter. The street lights have been switched off, iconic landmarks like the Eiffel tower and the Brandenburg Gate are no longer illuminated and citizens are advised to wear turtleneck sweaters and warm clothing to remain warm, instead of burning precious fuel.

The energy crisis has hit virtually every nation in Europe after Russia shut off the energy tap. It has reduced industrial production (European economies traditionally depend on heavy manufacturing which have a very high requirement of energy); it has led to a seven-fold increase in heating and warming costs, that threatens to bankrupt ordinary citizens, and forced governments to release huge amounts as subsidies.  Just recovering from the Covid, this whammy, now threatens to push European economies to the brink of recession.

Putin is hoping that the energy squeeze and the hardships imposed upon ordinary citizens will weaken  the resolve and force the western nations to call for an end to the war. Perhaps he too, is looking for a truce now – one that offers him a face-saving exit. The impasse of winter could provide the time to help bring that about.

A Time for Peace?

With the success of the Ukrainian offensive and the recapture of Kherson, Zelensky had boasted that “this is the beginning of the end” and that the war would continue “till the last Russian is pushed out of Ukrainian soil – including Crimea.” But is it really the beginning of the end for Russia? In spite of their military reverses, they hold on to substantial territory and history has shown that when pushed to the wall, they somehow manage to launch spectacular offensives to retrieve the situation, as they did in the battles of Moscow and Stalingrad during the Second World War.

So, even if on the back foot, the Russian war machine is still strong. If they can consolidate in winter, the war could continue into the next year and perhaps even beyond in an endless ‘frozen conflict.’ But it is draining Russia to the tune of $ 1 Billion a day, growing loss of prestige and international isolation, and there is growing pressure to put an end to hostilities.

The calls for peace are getting louder and the winter stalemate could be the right time for it. India is quite ideally placed to bring about some kind of agreement. It has remained neutral throughout the war, while maintaining strong ties with both Russia and Ukraine. Prime Minister Modi has spoken to Putin five times, and to Zelensky thrice, since the war began, and kept the communication lines open. Calls for cessation of hostilities have been repeated at the SCO meet, the G-20 summit and also the meetings between Foreign Minister S Jaishankar and his Russian counterpart. India can use its growing stature to bring the two parties to the table.

Both Ukraine and Russia are under increasing pressure for a ‘cessation of hostilities’ if nothing else. Zelensky has to water down his stance of not negotiating with Putin’s regime. His hands are now strengthened by the battlefield gains and could push his claims for a Russian withdrawal to the pre-February boundaries (which does not include Crimea) in return for guarantees that Ukraine would not allow NATO on its soil. Even if a negotiated settlement does not come about (which, in all probability, won’t) it could lead to a ceasefire or an armistice (as between North and South Korea) where the fighting stops, even if the war does not officially end.

As ‘Marshal Winter’ approaches, it will have a decisive impact on the war. It is likely to result in both sides firming in on the  frontline as it exists now and  bring a temporary pause in the fighting. There could be a respite till spring, but it will be a cold respite with untold miseries for millions of civilians without electricity or energy. The fighting could also continue during the winter and beyond. It may even continue for years more, like the fighting in the Donbas which has been in a state of frozen conflict since 2014.  But the brief window brings in a chance for peace which must be grasped and seized, not only by the two sides, but by the rest of the world.