As winter weather sets in, Ukraine fights to keep Russia from regrouping

On the desolate battlefronts of southern and eastern Ukraine, the clinging, loamy mud of late autumn is beginning to congeal into ice. As snow flurries and freezing temperatures set in, the last thing this country’s leaders want is for the front lines of the war to harden as well.

Ukrainian officials believe any winter lull in combat operations would give the beleaguered Russian army a chance to rest, regroup and try to capitalize on the momentum that Moscow’s forces have eluded in more than nine months of fighting. Therefore, even in the coming cold months, Ukraine is determined to keep up the military pressure on a numerically superior but faltering opponent.

But Russia employs a pressure tactic of its own: willful destruction of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, with civil morale as an indirect target. Waves of bombing that began in earnest in early October, targeting targets such as thermal power plants and substations, have brought the national power grid to the brink of collapse as temperatures plummet.

Ukrainian officials and Western allies call it the Armament of Winter.

A woman in a red hat and dark clothes is standing in a narrow stairwell

Natasha Romanovskia stands at the entrance to the village bunker liberated by the Russians in Shyroke, Ukraine. She and her husband, Victor Romanovskia, stayed in their home, which is now badly damaged and has no heating.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

“This war has knocked on the door of every single Ukrainian home,” said Iryna Maruniak, who is in charge of utility affairs in Lviv Municipality, western Ukraine’s largest city, last week, citing power outages affecting millions of homes across the country Consequence had dark and cold.

In towns and villages, authorities are erecting thousands of isolated tents known as “invincibility points” where people can warm up, drink hot tea and charge their phones and other devices. In urban high-rises, residents band together to leave care packages in elevators — water, diapers, snacks — for anyone affected by an unexpected power outage.

Ukraine expects the punitive attack to continue.

“Unfortunately, as long as they have missiles, they won’t stop,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video address this week.

Ukraine’s Defense Minister Dmytro Kuleba, in recognition of what has become the two-pronged nature of the war — the military’s need for sophisticated weapons, both offensive and defensive, and the growing needs of a power-hungry population — has summarized his country’s wish list.

“Patriots and transformers,” he told reporters on the sidelines of this week’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Romania, referring to sophisticated missile defense systems and devices that transfer power from one circuit to another that are in short supply as much-needed power — grid repairs are ongoing Around the clock.

People in work clothes carry a coffin in a church with a painting of Christ on the cross in the background

The funeral for Denis Metyolkin took place at Sts. Peter and Paul Garrison Church in Lviv, Ukraine after he fell in action on the Eastern Front. Metyolkin worked as a postman before returning to the Ukrainian military.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

US and NATO officials this week seemed to address that wish list. To complement the nearly $40 billion in arms and military equipment the West is supplying to Ukraine, the US announced a $53 million “energy aid” package that will include crucial transformers, as well as generators and spare parts for electrical systems included.

“Ukraine will not achieve that in a few months, but in a few days or weeks,” US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said at the Romania conference on Wednesday. However, he acknowledged that the US needs to change the type of weapons it provides to include more sophisticated air defense systems.

Otherwise, Blinken said, Ukraine and its supporters face “a process that repeats itself over and over again. stuff is replaced; it is destroyed; it will be replaced.” He called Russia’s campaign to “freeze and starve” the people of Ukraine “barbaric”.

In Washington, a senior Defense Department official said the Pentagon is considering adding Patriot long-range surface-to-air missile systems to a future tranche of military aid to Ukraine.

“Ukraine’s needs have changed over time as the war has unfolded,” John F. Kirby, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said Wednesday. “In the beginning we talked about it [shorter-range] Stingers and Javelin missiles, and now we’re at a point with these attacks on civilian infrastructure where air defenses are badly needed. … We prioritize air defense capabilities.”

Both on and off the battlefield, Ukraine is doing everything it can to counter the narrative – gaining traction among some Western allies – that the conflict is at a military impasse and that negotiations are the only way out.

Zelenskyy’s government is walking down a difficult path, it must appear open to an eventual negotiated solution, but it also wants to start talks at a moment of maximum military advantage, which Ukraine believes has not yet achieved.

After recent gains in southern Ukraine, the United States’ senior military official, Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that Kiev should negotiate a settlement sooner rather than later before fighting reaches a stalemate. President Biden and other senior US officials quickly pushed back on the idea. However, French President Emmanuel Macron, who is in Washington this week on a state visit, is expected to discuss possible strategy with Biden, European diplomats have said.

Zelenskyy has said he will only negotiate with Russia’s “next” president, that is, after Vladimir Putin is ousted.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the harsh weather conditions on the ground, Western analysts and officials believe that cold-weather months will see Ukrainian commanders continue to push to retake more Russian-controlled territory, which makes up about a fifth of the country. Some of these lands were confiscated during a proxy separatist war in eastern Ukraine that Russia instigated starting in 2014, in what Ukrainians believe was the real start of the conflict.

Even more territory was lost after Putin launched a full-scale invasion on February 24. Of the latter countries, Ukraine recaptured about half.

People stand with their luggage in front of a dimly lit building

At the train station in Mykolayiv, people who are traveling to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev are waiting in the dark. Power went out in Mykolaiv after Russian forces bombed several power plants.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Ukraine wants to build on military successes, both early and recent. In April, their troops repulsed Russia’s attempt to capture the capital, Kiev. In September, Ukrainian forces retook thousands of square miles in northeastern Kharkiv province. Last month Russian troops, cut off from their own supply lines, were forced to evacuate the strategic city of Kherson, the only provincial capital they have been able to capture since February.

Better-equipped and more disciplined Ukrainian forces are likely to hold up well against under-trained, under-supplied Russian troops who, once mobilized, were quickly pushed to the front lines, Western military estimates suggest.

In a winter preview last month, Britain’s military intelligence said that “changes in daylight hours, temperature and weather will present unique challenges for both sides”. However, the assessment said that NATO-standard cold-weather gear provided to the Ukrainian armed forces would help protect against hypothermia.

Autumn rains and the resulting thick mud have slowed the pace of the battle, but the frozen ground later in the winter will once again allow for freer movement of heavy equipment — one reason Putin waited until February to invade.

But the prediction is brutal in places like Bakhmut, an eastern town that has been a maelstrom of carnage unleashed by Russian forces, including mercenaries from the notorious private Wagner group. The devastated landscape, dotted with tree stumps and water-filled shell holes, is a stark reminder of scenes from World War I trench warfare.

In the south, the Black Sea coast could now be a crucial springboard for Ukrainian forces. For months, Ukraine successfully defended the city of Mykolaiv, despite deadly, almost constant rocket attacks devastating parts of it.

The city of Kherson, now liberated from an eight-month Russian occupation, came under heavy Russian fire from across the Dnieper, where Moscow’s forces were beefing up their defenses in anticipation of a renewed Ukrainian push.

For Ukraine, even victories are overshadowed by suffering. Last month, authorities began evacuating civilians from the recently retaken areas of Kherson and Mykolaiv provinces, anticipating that winter conditions will be simply too difficult due to lack of heat, electricity and water.

Neither side is publicly accounting for their dead and wounded, although Western estimates suggest that casualties on both sides are in the tens of thousands. The Ukrainian military said it calculated that 500 Russian soldiers were killed in 24 hours this week.

And every day across the country, intimate scenes of grief paint the vast canvas of conflict.

In a war in which not only the young but also the middle-aged are fighting, Yuriy Chernenko, who was killed on the Eastern Front two days before his 54th birthday, was mourned by classmates in Lviv who remembered their kindergarten days remembered together almost half a century earlier.

“He was so happy to be a grandfather; it brought him so much joy,” said Iryna Krupchak, 53, who joined the ceremonial procession behind Chernenko’s coffin. “I curse those who stole his life.”

King reported from Mykolayiv and Wilkinson from Washington. As winter weather sets in, Ukraine fights to keep Russia from regrouping

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