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With winter approaching, Ukraine prepares to fight on frozen ground

A group of Ukrainian soldiers from the Territorial Defense load a rocket under the cover of trees in Kherson Region in October. The approaching winter may force a change in tactics, Ukrainian military units and Western military analysts say.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
A group of Ukrainian soldiers from the Territorial Defense load a rocket under the cover of trees in Kherson Region in October. The approaching winter may force a change in tactics, Ukrainian military units and Western military analysts say.

KHERSON REGION, Ukraine — They load the rockets in a grove of trees, under the cover of yellowing leaves. One by one, they're lifted from the back of a still-running pickup and slid into the launcher welded to the bed of a neighboring pickup.

A group of Russian soldiers has been spotted hiding in a tree line on the west bank of the Dnipro River about 5 miles to the south. The rockets are intended for them.

"Fire show," says a chuckling member of a special Ukrainian Territorial Defense team, who goes by the nickname Badger, as he screws silver percussion caps to the nose of each rocket.

Minutes later and a couple of miles down the road, beside a field of dead black sunflowers, the rockets take flight in a plume of smoke. Soldiers pile back into the pickup and speed out of Russian artillery range to the north with a passing honk.

For much of the last eight months, the war along Ukraine's front lines has resembled a deadly game of hide-and-seek. Troops, tanks and artillery hole up in tree lines, firing across the country's flat fields while fearing — and evading — reconnaissance drones overhead.

The approaching winter may force a change in tactics, Ukrainian military units and Western security analysts say.

"You have nothing to hide [under]," says a soldier from the territorial defense battalion, who goes by the call name Playboy. "It's so much easier to find you."

NPR is only using nicknames of some of the soldiers interviewed, as required by Ukraine's Defense Ministry.

"War in the winter will depend on effective reconnaissance and effective artillery," Playboy continues. "Who will be more effective in this part, that one will be much better on the battlefield."

Winter may bring an opportunity for Ukraine to retake more land

In the months since its offensive stalled across Ukraine, Russia has been slowly ceding ground. Ukrainian troops retook cities and settlements north of Kyiv, then in the country's northeast and south. Last week, Russia pulled out of the key southern city of Kherson, the only regional capital to fall into Russian hands in the nearly nine months since its full-scale invasion began.

Ukrainian military officials had been signaling for months their intent to take back the key port city, but the effort was slowed, in part, Ukrainian forces tell NPR, because of the autumn weather. Heavy rains turned roads to mud, limiting Ukraine's ability to move Western-supplied weapons systems, which have proven critical in their efforts on all fronts.

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

"In general terms, winter in that part of the world favors the attacker," says Fred Kagan, a military historian at the American Enterprise Institute, a D.C.-based think tank. And with Russia on the defensive along most of the front line at this point, he says, "it probably favors the Ukrainians if they're able to prepare in advance mechanized forces for ongoing counteroffenses."

A soldier in Kharkiv region walks through a trench, his breath showing in the cold air.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A soldier in Kharkiv region walks through a trench, his breath showing in the cold air.

Frozen ground and iced rivers could provide an opportunity for Ukraine to push its offensive, Kagan says, particularly if Russia continues to experience the types of resupply issues that plagued its failed offensive around the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

Ukrainian soldiers fighting in the Kherson region that NPR talked to in mid-October expressed optimism. They've had slow success in retaking land over the last few months and believe they'll be able to continue pushing Russia from the illegally annexed territory — progress that until Russia's announced withdrawal was difficult to confirm because of a media blackout in front-line areas imposed by Ukraine's Defense Ministry.

"The Russians know how to fight," says Maj. Roman Kovalev, who's leading a newly configured 500-person battalion on the southern front. "They learn fast. They're not the same forces as they were in the spring. It is hard to fight them."

Ukrainian soldiers prepare to send rockets from the edge of the Kherson region to hit targets in part of the region occupied by Russia in October.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Ukrainian soldiers prepare to send rockets from the edge of the Kherson region to hit targets in part of the region occupied by Russia in October.

Ukraine is preparing for a drop in temperatures

At front-line positions in the country's south, east and north, Ukrainian forces are digging in for the winter ahead and preparing for a prolonged conflict.

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

A soldier stands in a carefully sealed and covered room, heated by wood, at a position north of Kharkiv.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A soldier stands in a carefully sealed and covered room, heated by wood, at a position north of Kharkiv.

Oleh, a territorial defender, who up until eight months ago was working as a butcher, prepares coffee in an underground hut built with birch trees and timber collected from the area. Outside a biting wind blows.

"We have everything," he says. "Everywhere is warm. It's not a problem at all."

His unit has been provided cold weather gear — coveralls, coats, boots and sleeping bags — to keep the cold at bay.

The U.S., Canada and Germany have provided Ukraine with winter combat gear in their latest tranches of military equipment. Outfitting Ukraine with Western-weapons and combat equipment has been critical to the country's successes in the region, Oleh says.

Soldiers smoke near an open door in a building heated by a wood stove inside a trench, allowing some cool air in.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Soldiers smoke near an open door in a building heated by a wood stove inside a trench, allowing some cool air in.

But Western military analysts say similar shipments will be needed, particularly over the next few months, if Ukraine hopes to sustain its territorial gains.

"I think there's a pattern in talking about the war that I've discerned among some people who have spent a lot of time, as I did in Afghanistan, thinking about the seasonality of that war," says Kagan. The pattern, he says, is a belief that fighting will slow down as temperatures dip, as it did in Afghanistan.

"I think we need to get that model out of our heads, because that's just not historically the way war in this part of the world works," Kagan says. "And so I think we need to have a lot of urgency about getting the Ukrainians what they need, to take advantage of the frozen season."

Asked if the upcoming winter will favor Russia or Ukraine, Oleh laughs with a cigarette in his mouth. His fellow soldier, Ihor, jumps in.

"It's our land," 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 heating in the trenches in Kharkiv region.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A soldier moves wood to chop for heating in the trenches in Kharkiv region.

Corrected: November 16, 2022 at 12:00 AM EST
The audio says incorrectly that Fred Kagan is with the Institute for the Study of War, as did a previous version of the web story. Kagan is head of the American Enterprise Institute's Critical Threats Project, which works with the ISW jointly on Ukraine updates.
Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.
Hanna Palamarenko