February 3, 2023

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Winter will be a major factor in Ukraine war, officials say

WASHINGTON — Senior Biden administration officials say Russia’s military operations in Ukraine will stall well into next year as recent Ukrainian advances disrupt Moscow’s hopes of seizing more territory in areas President Vladimir V. Putin is attempting has to represent as a historical part of Russia.

While officials say Moscow is expected to continue attacking Ukrainian troops, bases, infrastructure and the power grid, the coming winter is expected to slow military progress on both sides.

In a major setback in the war, the Kremlin announced on Friday that its forces had withdrawn from the strategic city of Kherson in southern Ukraine and moved across the Dnipro River. US officials believe Russia’s decision to withdraw from the city was partly based on concerns that its soldiers would be corralled and cut off from supplies when winter set in.

Ukrainian troops have destroyed or damaged all but one bridge into the city, limiting Russia’s ability to resupply its 20,000 to 30,000 troops, many of whom Moscow has sent to the front lines in recent weeks with little or no training, it said a NATO official.

American officials had estimated the Russian withdrawal would take two weeks, but Russia’s Defense Ministry said Friday the withdrawal was complete, and residents said the remaining bridge across the Dnipro to the city had been destroyed.

The winter break could last up to six months. Rain and soft soil in late November will slow both armies’ movements. Then, as temperatures drop and the ground freezes, tanks and trucks can move around more easily. But the possibility of heavy snowfall and even colder weather could make it difficult for the ill-equipped Russian army to launch a new offensive.

“You’re already seeing the sloppy weather in Ukraine slowing things down a bit,” Colin H. Kahl, the deputy defense secretary for policy, told reporters last week. “It gets very muddy, which makes it difficult to mount large-scale offensives.”

With a weather-related lull in major military movements, the war will enter a new phase. Russia is likely to step up attacks on infrastructure to terrorize Ukrainians, US officials said. And Ukraine could step up a covert campaign to show it can strike back even on Russian soil, analysts say.

“Ukrainians look like they’re continuing to push sabotage and subversion attacks on Russian lines,” said Seth G. Jones, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “These are targeted assassinations and just general sabotage against Russian-controlled areas in Ukraine.”

Biden administration officials say it’s imperative to take advantage of the winter slowdown to rebuild Ukraine’s defense and offensive arms supply.

On Thursday, the Pentagon announced another $400 million worth of weapons, including short-range Avenger mobile air-defense vehicles that fire Stinger missiles.

But officials in Kyiv say they will need more air defense systems than the SA-11 and S-300 the Ukrainian military already has, which have largely kept Russian pilots out of Ukrainian airspace, and more tanks and even fighter jets to retake territory , which Mr Putin has illegally annexed for the past nine months of the war.

During the looming lull, both sides will also retrain troops and prepare for a renewed push in February, military analysts said.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Mr Biden’s top military adviser, said this week that the coming cold was an opportunity for both sides to consider peace talks. The war has already killed or wounded more than 100,000 Russian soldiers, he said, adding that Ukraine is likely to have suffered a similar number of casualties.

The Kremlin would certainly like to see a ceasefire in the coming months to bolster its military and strengthen its position on the ground, two Russian military analysts wrote in an analysis by the Royal United Services Institute last week. Analysts Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds said the Russian government is encouraging Ukraine’s international partners to negotiate pressure on the government in Kyiv to negotiate a ceasefire.

But “a ceasefire is tactically advantageous for Russia to stabilize its control over the occupied territories and offers no prospect of the Kremlin reducing its aim of subjugating Ukraine or halting its forced energy diplomacy against Western Europe,” Watling and Mr. Reynolds said wrote.

And several military analysts say it is not in Ukraine’s interests to slack off this winter, especially as Russia continues to target civilian infrastructure and the power grid. Ukrainian officials say they believe Russia is also likely to attack the country’s water supply systems.

But Biden administration officials said there may be a limit to how long Russia can continue its infrastructure-destroying campaign as its stockpiles of long-range precision-guided missiles dwindle. Moscow has deployed Iranian-made attack drones to make up the shortfall, but it’s not clear how many more it can acquire.

American intelligence does not have an accurate estimate of what remains of Russia’s stockpile of precision-guided munitions, including cruise missiles and drones. But Russia’s industrial base is struggling to build additional weapons due to problems at the factories and a supply shortage caused by Western sanctions.

With equipment problems and a spate of newly drafted soldiers in need of training, Russia is most likely hoping to use a winter break to rebuild, American officials said.

“For Ukraine, winter conditions will complicate the logistics for conventional operations to retake territory, while the lack of vegetation and other cover will make advances with limited armor risky,” the Royal Institute analysts wrote. “For Russia, with demoralized forces and ill-prepared positions, the winter is likely to bring another slump in morale and significant casualties from exposure injuries.”

Mr. Kahl, the senior Defense Ministry official, said: “We should expect both sides to exchange artillery fire.” He added: “The Russians appear determined to continue to drop cruise missiles and Iranian drones on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure.”

Moscow can keep it that way, he said, “so the war will go on, even if its intensity is changed somewhat.”