4 December 2022
Ukraine – Winter War
By Gwynne Dyer
When the two most senior military and intelligence officials in Washington make the same obvious error in public three times in three weeks, you have to wonder what they are really up to. Can it just be simple ignorance, or do they have a hidden agenda?
First up was General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He caused quite a stir on 9 November by saying that the slowdown in the fighting in Ukraine as winter arrives may create “a window…of opportunity for negotiation.”
“There has to be a mutual recognition that a military victory is probably, in the true sense of the word is maybe not achievable through military means,” he added, “and therefore you need to turn to other means.”
Milley’s stumbling remarks caused a considerable uproar, as they were widely seen as an attempt to push Ukraine into abandoning its stated goal of recovering all the territory conquered by Russia. Instead, Kyiv should settle for the best deal it can get while it still has the advantage militarily.
He was back at it a week later in a joint news conference alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Once again he pointed out that the approach of winter, when pace of combat is expected to slow, could provide “a window” for a political solution — as pushing Russia out of Ukraine completely would be “a very difficult task.”
The Ukrainians were clearly unhappy about the pressure they felt was being applied to them, but they refrained from pointing out the large hole in Milley’s logic, presumably because they didn’t want to make matters worse. Better to ignore his remarks and hope they didn’t represent the official US position.
Then it was the turn of US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, who told the annual Reagan National Defence Forum in California on Saturday that “We’re seeing a kind of a reduced tempo already of the conflict… and we expect that’s likely to be what we see in the coming months.”
Both sides would try to “refit, resupply and reconstitute” for offensives next spring, Haines said. She didn’t drop the other shoe and say that Ukraine should therefore start negotiating for a compromise deal now, but the same amateur mistake was driving her argument.
Repeat after me: winter is the best time for war-fighting in Ukraine (and in Russia). It isn’t the 18th century any more. Armies do not retire into winter camps at the first snowfall, and stay there until spring.
The very worst time for fighting in Ukraine is the spring ‘rasputitsa’ (mud season), when rain and melting snow make unpaved roads almost impassable to heavy vehicles and off-road movement impossible for about two months.
One of the reasons the initial Russian invasion stalled was that it coincided with the start of the rasputitsa. The Russian general staff knew about it, of course, but they planned to just roar down the freeway in tanks, fly some Spetsnaz troops into a Kyiv-area airfield, and knock off the Ukrainian government in a couple of days. No off-road travel.
Summer is a good time for fighting, because the ground is dry, the weather is warm, and visibility is good. The autumn rasputitsa (October-November) slows thing down a lot, but it’s not as bad as the spring one.
And then comes winter. Yes, it’s cold, but so what? The ground will be frozen hard within another week or ten days, and the next three months will be ideal for rapid off-road movement. For classic high-speed armoured thrusts, in other words, and we are likely to see some of that, at least from the Ukrainian side.
So the question on the table right now is: are Milley and Haines just ignorant about the basic historical realities of ground war in eastern Europe (almost all the big Soviet offensives of the Second World War began in winter), or are they deliberately misrepresenting things? And if so, who are they trying to fool?
Not the Ukrainians, obviously. They know how their own climate really works. The Western public? That’s plausible.
Twisting the Ukrainians’ arms to force them into an early compromise peace may suit official agendas in the White House and the Pentagon, where they worry about possible escalation to nuclear war. However, some cover story about why the Ukrainians can’t win big victories in the near future anyway would be needed to sell that policy to Western voters.
But frankly, I don’t believe this particular conspiracy theory. There is no doubt that the White House, and indeed NATO as a whole, are keeping the Ukrainians on a short leash. They are genuinely worried that Kyiv will win too big, and cause a real international crisis.
However, I have no difficulty whatever in believing that sheer ignorance is driving this whole weird sub-plot about a winter pause in the fighting.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“The Ukrainians…position”; and “One…travel”)
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘The Shortest History of War’.