Morale and ‘will to fight’: a precious commodity for Ukraine as winter approaches, supported by western intelligence and night vision equipment

In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office and posted on Facebook, Ukrainian soldiers take a selfie with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, centre, during his visit to Kherson, Ukraine, Monday, Nov. 14, 2022. Ukraine's retaking of Kherson was a significant setback for the Kremlin and it came some six weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed the Kherson region and three other provinces in southern and eastern Ukraine — in breach of international law — and declared them Russian territory. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

In the ongoing war, Europe’s fast-approaching winter will be an obstacle for Ukraine and Russia, and the frigid weather will bring more difficulties than just cold temperatures.

Russia has planned to use the cold weather to its advantage, with pundits on Russian state television advocating for freezing Ukrainians by attacking the electrical grid. If there is no heat for Ukrainians to use, Russian pundits expect that factor to diminish Ukrainian morale. However, colder temperatures and shorter days also will affect Russian forces, and both Ukrainian and Russian troops will battle the same obstacles—limited daylight, less time to aid wounded soldiers and weapon malfunctions from cold weather.

The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense tweeted information about the upcoming winter Monday morning, detailing the potential challenges both sides could face.

Morale and ‘will to fight’, a precious commodity for Ukraine

The challenges that will arise as winter weather draws in will hit the “already low” morale of Russian troops, according to an assessment by the British Ministry of Defence.

In its latest assessment of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the British defense ministry outlined how the colder weather conditions that will arise in the coming months will affect both Ukrainian and Russian troops in the war, which began in February.

“Winter will change conflict conditions for both Russian and Ukrainian forces. Changes to daylight hours, temperature and weather will present unique challenges for fighting soldiers,” the ministry said.

Limited Daylight

“Winter will bring a change in conflict conditions for both Russian and Ukrainian forces. Changes to daylight hours, temperature and weather will present unique challenges for fighting soldiers. Any decisions that the Russian General Staff make will be in part informed by the onset of winter,” the Ministry of Defence’s statement said.

As winter takes hold in Europe, the average daylight will shrink to less than nine hours a day compared to 15 or 16 hours of daylight during the continent’s summer season. The Ministry of Defence said the limited daylight will likely shift both sides’ strategy, leading to more defensive frontlines rather than offensive attacks. However, Center for Strategic and International Studies senior adviser Mark Cancian said fighting won’t stop because soldiers are cold.

Ukrainian soldiers ride on top of an armored fighting vehicle near the front line on October 21 in Bakhmut, Donetsk oblast, Ukraine. Both Russian and Ukrainian forces might experience more challenges with fighting as winter approaches. Carl Court/Getty Images

“The war began on February 24th with active operations despite cold weather. In World War II, the Soviets routinely conducted winter offensives,” Cancian told Newsweek in an email. “Cold weather means that fighting tends to concentrate around villages so troops can stay warm. Fighting also tends to occur during the short daylight hours, although night vision goggles now make night operations easier. Still, the troops on both sides are not well trained, and night operations require a high level of skill.”

The Ministry of Defence also said night vision capability is a “precious commodity” that could exacerbate each side’s unwillingness to fight at night.

Less Time to Help Wounded Soldiers

Average temperatures could fall to freezing or below for several months beginning in December. In addition to battle-related injuries, cold injuries such as frost bite and hypothermia are now of concern.

“Additionally, the ‘golden hour’ window in which to save a critically wounded soldier is reduced by approximately half, making the risk of contact with the enemy much greater,” the Ministry of Defence said.

Malfunctioning Weapons

Weapons may malfunction quicker because of cold weather, the Ministry of Defense added.

Changing temperatures, such as soldiers going from freezing weather outside to a shelter where the temperatures may be warmer, could cause condensation to form on the weapons. When the weapon returns to a cold environment, the condensation can freeze internal mechanisms of the weapon together, which could cause stoppages, according to and a U.S. Army press release.

Although both sides will be presented with winter’s unique challenges, one side might fare better than the other.

“Winter probably favors the Ukrainians because their supply system is better, and the U.S. and NATO are providing cold-weather gear,” Cancion said. “The Russians have a lot of experience with cold weather operations but the weak state of their logistics makes it difficult for them to translate skill and doctrine into battlefield advantage.”

Michael Kimmage, professor and chair of the Catholic University of America’s history department, agreed that Ukraine may be better equipped to battle the cold than Russia. And although fighting won’t stop, Kimmage expects it to slow down. Because Ukraine has already launched its counteroffensive attacks, Russia is now on the defensive, and Ukraine may need to reassess which strategy to invoke next.

“Low hanging fruit has been taken, and that can slow Ukraine down (for more offensive attacks),” Kimamge told Global Defense Corp. “Russia is tapped out. They’re exhausted, they don’t have sufficient manpower.”

Winter advantages for Ukraine

As the average high temperature will drop from 13 degrees Celsius (55 degrees Fahrenheit) through September to November, and to zero degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit) through December to February, troops will be more unwilling to fight, particularly at night.

“Night vision capability is a precious commodity, further exacerbating the unwillingness to fight at night,” the intelligence update said.

“Forces lacking in winter weather clothing and accommodation are highly likely to suffer from non-freezing cold injuries,” the defense ministry said.

“The weather itself is likely to see an increase in rainfall, wind speed and snowfall. Each of these will provide additional challenges to the already low morale of Russian forces, but also present problems for kit maintenance,” it said.

Meanwhile, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a U.S. think tank, assessed on Thursday that Ukraine may be able to take advantage of frozen terrain “to move more easily than they could in the muddy autumn months.”

The UK’s assessment came after Moscow retreated from the key Ukrainian city of Kherson. The ISW separately said Sunday that Russian troops are likely to concentrate efforts in the eastern Donbas region after withdrawing.

Max Bergmann, the director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said Ukraine will likely assess the winter as an opportunity to continue to press the advantage against Russian forces.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visits newly liberated city of Kherson in Ukraine.

“What we’re seeing is that the Russian conscripts that are being thrown to the front, many of them have very little equipment, they’re sent without basic necessities like food,” he told Global Defense Corp.

“[In] winter you need more gear, winter weather gear, and the ability to stay warm. So, actually the demands on forces on the field increases, and my guess is that the Ukrainians are going to be quite well prepared for this, while I’m not sure a newly mobilized Russian force will be.”

“And this is where difficulty in getting supplies to the front, which are sort of these attacks that the Ukrainians are doing, would make it quite difficult for the Russians,” Bergmann added.

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