Russia’s ‘General Frost’ is back on the front line, but this time he is hoping to be on the offensive.
In 1812, the brutally cold Russian winter helped defend Moscow and defeat Napoleon’s army. In December of that year the term ‘General Frost’ first appeared in a satirical British cartoon captioned ‘General Frost shaving little Boney’. The General is naked to the waist, has the legs of a bear and his feet are crushing French soldiers into the snow.
This year the General’s back and partially in command of the timetable and map if there is to be a Russian advance into Ukraine. Having laid the groundwork for an invasion Moscow is now looking at the weather and waiting for the ground to freeze.
The prelude to an offensive war in the twenty-first century is not that different to the opening stage of wars in previous ages. Before you roll what Bismark called ‘the iron dice’ of war there is usually a rationale, a ‘justification’, preparation, belief in victory, and then a spark. Russia has the first three, and possibly the fourth. We wait to see if there is a fifth.
The alleged rationale is based on geography and history. Russia has been invaded from the flat land in front of it in the past, and genuinely is concerned that Ukraine may be used for this purpose in the future. Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 the Kremlin has been volubly making the case that NATO promised in the early 1990s not to advance eastwards. It has built on this ‘justification’ by telling the Russian public that Ukraine has an aggressive ‘fascistic’ leadership threatening their security. In a lengthy essay published last summer President Putin wrote that Ukraine is not really an independent state but part of greater Russia. The military high command then made it compulsory for Russia’s soldiers to read the article.
The troops and equipment being moved into position are exactly those you would expect for a major invasion and have the ability to punch deep across the border. Among them are special forces and airborne units. The equipment includes amphibious landing craft, long range artillery, and tanks and other mechanised vehicles. Armoured bridge laying vehicles are also in position.
The forces are positioned in three main areas. In Crimea—south of Ukraine’s Donbass region, just east of the Donbass/Russia border, and in the north close to the Russian/Belarus border. The latter are positioned to be able to push south and link up with the forces coming from the south and east to create contiguous territory and cut Ukraine off from the Sea of Azov.
The amphibious and airborne forces give Moscow the option of taking the port city of Odessa and potentially cutting Ukraine off from the Black Sea. The positioning of the troops in the north also gives the option of crossing westwards into Belarus and then attacking southwards bringing them behind Kiev in order to surround the capital and not have to cross the Dnieper River. This brings us back to General Frost.
Most of the mechanised forces need the ground to freeze if they are to make quick progress. Some of the countryside heading into the Donbass from the east is boggy but nowhere is quite so waterlogged as coming down from the north and through the Pripet Marshes—a vast expanse of low-lying bogs and marshland. January is the coldest month but so far, the winter has been relatively mild, and the ground is not deep frozen. This may change by the end of the month giving Moscow about six weeks before a slow thaw sets in softening the ground into terrain which, if being used by the military, would turn into a mud bath. That could turn into bloodbath for the attacking forces.
The weather is a major influence in the planning of whichever direction an attack might come from, and a simultaneous advance on all three fronts is a possibility. In the south there is another factor familiar to military planners – railways. The rail lines in the south mostly run east to west, but an advance up from the south would be heading towards the north meaning that if bridgeheads are established, supplies might not be able to be moved by rolling stock.
Neither the weather nor Ukraine’s rail system are enough to prevent an invasion if Putin is set on one, but they will give him pause for thought. The arrival near the Russian/Ukraine border recently of extra troop-carrying helicopters and attack helicopters suggests the Kremlin is determined to keep its options open.
All the above requires an incredible amount of equipment and equally important, backup kit and supplies. The amount of fuel, food, and ammunition to sustain a moving force of well over 100,000 troops is mind boggling. However, Putin appears to have in position what it takes to invade.
So, we can see that the Russian leader has the rationale, the ‘justification’, and the preparation. What we cannot know yet is if he has the belief in the victory and the intention to try and achieve it. If he has then we will probably see the casus belli – the spark.
This could come in the shape of a ‘false flag’ operation. They are well known in the history of warfare, for example most historians believe the Japanese army blew up a railway line in Manchuria in 1931 and then blamed it on Chinese nationalists to have a pretext to invade.
Last month an article appeared on the Kremlin’s website saying American special operatives were in the Donbass region preparing a chemical weapons attack on Russian-backed forces. The idea of Washington trying to spark a war in eastern Europe may seem ludicrous to anyone who studies the force posture of US and other NATO forces. What the NATO governments want is a stable Europe. However, to sections of the Russian public, dominated by Putin-controlled media outlets, it will have appeared plausible. Russia has its own special forces already in the Donbass among thousands of pro-Russian rebel troops. A sabotage operation would be easy to plan and carry out if a pretext is required.
The recent cyber-attack on Ukraine government sites may have been conducted by a group of over enthusiastic civilian Russian hackers, but it is possible it was a test of capabilities. One of the few differences in preparations for war in this century compared to the past is that cyber-attacks will be an integral part of the opening moments.
Western observers are listening to Russian pronouncements about ‘red lines’ and ‘time running out’ and wondering if it is rhetoric. That is a triumph for Putin. He has kept everyone guessing, been treated publicly as if Russia is America’s equal, and may still be holding out for a compromise to sell to the public at home. Meanwhile all sides are watching the satellites, the websites, the clock, and ‘General Frost’.