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Putin poised to strike in the Big Freeze


N MY last TCW article on January 5, I noted that the weather in Ukraine and western Russia had been unseasonably mild, thus making any offensive moves very difficult: both wheeled and armoured vehicles would rapidly become mud-bound. In the last day or so, however, temperatures have dropped to around minus 7C. This should solidify the ground for movement and also freeze, or partially freeze, the rivers so that crossing operations could take place.

Putin has, of course, announced a ceasefire over the period of the Orthodox Christmas.  At best this is a cover, under which troops and equipment will be positioned for a strike, perhaps around the end of the Christmas period on January 12 by which time the ground and rivers should be hard. Putin can, of course, choose his time and place and having done so, will mass regular forces, supported by all available air and sea power, missile troops and artillery, cyber forces and deep fires to destroy yet more infrastructure and, of course, an information operation in support of physical manoeuvre. Meanwhile, the long, fortified frontier will be held by positional units from locally recruited bodies and Ministry of Interior troops.

On the Ukrainian side, the army is stretched thin. Most if not all of the regular army is deployed to cover the Donbas area, facing the now-well developed Russian defensive lines. They too have taken risks, holding ground elsewhere with convalescent units and home guardsmen. Recent promises of Bradleyand Marder armoured vehicles from the USA and Germany will be good for morale, but these vehicles will take time to deliver and longer still to train crews. They will not affect any moves in the near future. 

A Russian attack from the north appears the most likely prospect – either at large scale, designed to encircle, trap and destroy the Ukrainian regular army; or a less ambitious attack to fix Ukrainian forces, followed up by a larger move.  The aim will be to destroy Ukrainian fighting power and, as a result, capture territory or gain a position from which a favourable peace will be dictated. Can it succeed? Possibly – but Russian battlefield performance must improve markedly. This is not just about the ability to execute drills on the ground, but about leadership and motivation: conscript troops so undisciplined and so badly supervised that they use mobile phones subject to intercept and targeting, and officers and NCOs who fail to impose basic levels of discipline and supervision to prevent this, do not suggest that much progress has been made

Can Russian weapons manufacturing keep pace with a new, large-scale offensive? Almost certainly the answer is yes. Some weapons are procured abroad, such as the purchase of Iranian drones, but the defence industrial base, mostly east of the Urals, is vast. Russia’s defence industries employ between 2.5million and 3million workers and account for around 20 per cent of all manufacturing jobs. Sevmash, the country’s largest shipbuilder, directly employs 27,000 people. (1) Nato will have to do better than a few armoured infantry vehicles to compete with that.


(1) Andrew Bowen, Congressional Research Service, accessed January 6, 2022.

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Jonathon Riley
Jonathon Riley
Lt Gen Riley is a former commander of British Forces in Sierra Leone and Iraq and Deputy Commander of all Nato forces in Afghanistan.

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