With winter approaching, Ukraine prepares to fight Russia on frozen ground : NPR

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A group of Ukrainian Territorial Defense soldiers load a missile under trees in the Kherson region in October. The approaching winter may force a change in tactics, Ukrainian military units and Western military analysts say.

Claire Harbage/NPR


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A group of Ukrainian Territorial Defense soldiers load a missile under trees in the Kherson region in October. The approaching winter may force a change in tactics, Ukrainian military units and Western military analysts say.

Claire Harbage/NPR

KHERSON REGION, Ukraine — They load the missiles in a forest of trees, under the cover of yellowing leaves. One by one, they are lifted off the back of a still-moving pickup and slid into the launcher welded to the bed of a neighboring pickup.

A group of Russian soldiers has been spotted in a tree line on the west bank of the Dnipro River, about 8 kilometers to the south. The missiles are for them.

“Fire show,” says a chuckling member of a special Ukrainian territory defense team, nicknamed the Badger, as he screws silver percussion caps onto each missile’s nose.

Minutes later and a few miles away, next to a field of dead black sunflowers, the missiles lift off in a plume of smoke. Soldiers stack back into the pickup and, with a passing honk, run north from the range of the Russian artillery.

A Ukrainian soldier writes on a missile before loading it to fire in the Russian-occupied Kherson region in October.

Claire Harbage/NPR


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A Ukrainian soldier writes on a missile before loading it to fire in the Russian-occupied Kherson region in October.

Claire Harbage/NPR

For much of the past eight months, the war along Ukraine’s front lines has resembled a deadly game of hide and seek. Troops, tanks and artillery nestle in tree lines and fire across the country’s flat plains while fearing – and dodging – overhead reconnaissance drones.

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 of the territory defense battalion, who goes by the call sign Playboy. “It’s so much easier to find you.”

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

“Winter war will depend on effective reconnaissance and effective artillery,” continues Playboy. “Who will be more effective in this part, who will be much better on the battlefield.”

The commander of a territorial defense unit fighting in the Kherson region, which goes by the name of Playboy, poses for a portrait last month.

Claire Harbage/NPR


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The commander of a territorial defense unit fighting in the Kherson region, which goes by the name of Playboy, poses for a portrait last month.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Winter may offer Ukraine the chance to reclaim more land

In the months since the offensive in Ukraine came to a halt, Russia has slowly given way. Ukrainian forces recaptured towns and settlements north of Kiev, then in the northeast and south of the country. Last week, Russia withdrew from the important southern city of Kherson, the only regional capital to fall into Russian hands in the nearly nine months since the full-scale invasion began.

Ukrainian military officials had for months expressed their intention to take back the key port city, but the effort was delayed, in part, Ukrainian troops tell NPR, because of the fall weather. Heavy rains turned the roads to mud, limiting Ukraine’s ability to move Western-supplied weapon systems, which have proved critical on all fronts.

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

“In general, winter in that part of the world favors the attacker,” said Fred Kagan, a military historian at the Institute for the Study of War, a DC-based think tank. And with Russia on the defensive along most of the front line at this point, he says, “it’s probably to the Ukrainians’ advantage if they can prepare mechanized troops in advance for continued counter-attacks.”

A soldier in the Kharkov region walks through a trench, his breath visible in the cold air.

Claire Harbage/NPR


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A soldier in the Kharkov region walks through a trench, his breath visible in the cold air.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Frozen ground and frozen rivers could provide Ukraine with an opportunity to press ahead with its offensive, Kagan says, especially if Russia continues to experience the supply problems that plagued its failed offensive around Ukraine’s capital Kiev.

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

“The Russians know how to fight,” said Major Roman Kovalev, who leads a newly assembled 500-man battalion on the southern front. “They learn quickly. They are not the same forces as in the spring. It is difficult to fight them.”

Ukrainian soldiers prepare to fire missiles from the edge of the Kherson region to hit targets in part of the Russian-occupied region in October.

Claire Harbage/NPR


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Ukrainian soldiers prepare to fire missiles from the edge of the Kherson region to hit targets in part of the Russian-occupied region in October.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Ukraine is preparing for a temperature drop

In front positions in the south, east and north of the country, Ukrainian troops are digging in for the coming winter and preparing for a protracted 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 enclosed and covered area, heated by wood, north of Kharkiv.

Claire Harbage/NPR


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A soldier stands in a carefully enclosed and covered area, heated by wood, north of Kharkiv.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Oleh, a territorial defender, who worked as a butcher until eight months ago, prepares coffee in an underground hut built with birch trees and wood collected from the area. A biting wind blows outside.

“We have everything,” he says. “It’s warm everywhere. That’s no problem at all.”

His unit has been given cold-weather gear — overalls, jackets, boots and sleeping bags — to keep out the cold.

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

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

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

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A wood stove heats one of the Ukrainian positions north of Kharkiv.

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A wood stove heats one of the Ukrainian positions north of Kharkiv.

Claire Harbage/NPR

But Western military analysts say similar shipments will be needed, especially in the coming months if Ukraine hopes to maintain its territorial gains.

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

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

When asked whether the coming winter will favor Russia or Ukraine, Oleh laughs with a cigarette in his mouth. His fellow soldier, Ihor, jumps in.

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

A soldier moves wood for heating in the trenches in the Kharkov region.

Claire Harbage/NPR


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A soldier moves wood for heating in the trenches in the Kharkov region.

Claire Harbage/NPR

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.

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