Russia’s next step? Experts may want to check Ukraine’s weather forecast

So far this winter has been unusually mild in much of Ukraine. As CNN traveled from the eastern port city of Mariupol to Zaporizhzia in central Ukraine on February 1, it started to rain. The driver shrugged in disbelief. “It should be snow,” he laughed.

In Zaporizhzia, banks of crusted snow were melting into a trickle of brown water. Even at midnight, when a shroud of mist blanketed the Dnieper River, the temperature hovered near freezing. The sleet turned to drizzle and vice versa.

Military analysts wonder if the continued mild winter could affect offensive plans. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied plans to attack Ukraine, but more than 100,000 Russian troops are gathered near Ukraine’s borders, along with heavy weapons, tanks and ballistic missiles.

Social media videos of several areas where Russian forces are deployed – some posted by soldiers themselves – show loose, flooded ground, and lots of mud.

Data from Copernicus, the EU’s Earth observation programme, shows that much of eastern Europe experienced well above average temperatures in January. Ukraine has experienced temperatures 1 to 3 degrees Celsius above the average for the past 30 years, one of the many changes the climate crisis has brought to this region.

Copernicus also notes that in January “Eastern Europe was mostly wetter than average” and the ground in Ukraine was wetter than normal. The combination means less frost and more mud.

This is not a surprise for Svitlana Krakovska, director of the Laboratory of Applied Climatology at the Ukrainian Hydrometeorological Institute in Kyiv.

“What we’re seeing on a long-term trajectory is fewer days with snow cover as well as freezing nights. We’re definitely seeing much stronger warming here than the global average,” he said. she told CNN.

The American assessment is that a Russian incursion would be easier if the temperature drops.

“[Russian President Vladimir Putin] going to have to wait a bit until the ground is frozen to be able to cross,” US President Joe Biden said at a press conference last month.

During a briefing at the Pentagon in late January, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley said that when Ukraine’s “high groundwater table” freezes, “it creates optimal conditions for all-terrain vehicles and wheeled vehicles”. maneuver.”

US officials said Putin would understand he had to move by the end of March.

But Dara Massicot, senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, said that “although frozen ground is an ‘advantage’ for Russian forces, it is not a determining factor. It is important to keep in mind that precision-guided missiles and airstrikes are not influenced by this factor.”

Russian forces have improved dramatically over the past decade, Massicot says. The Air Force gained better targeting and communications – and many of its pilots gained combat experience in Syria.

“The Russian military trains all year round, so they have experience with different weather conditions.”

Russian tanks – hundreds of which are now within range of the Ukrainian border – aren’t much bothered by soft ground, although they would probably advance faster on frozen ground.

Even so, the armor only moves at the speed of its logistical tail, vehicles that could be slowed down by bad weather “if they were to go off-road for some reason,” Massicot explains. She notes that Russia has deployed advanced logistical equipment to help overcome these problems, including recovery vehicles and bridging equipment.

There is some snow on the ground in Mariupol, but not as much as decades ago.

Floating bridges have also been seen on rail convoys traveling to Belarus since late January.

Soil conditions would be greater in some places than in others. Eastern Ukraine is hilly agricultural land, an ideal reservoir country. But the northern border with Belarus includes thousands of square miles of bogs and swamps that would prevent an attacking force (as was the case with the Nazis in 1941 during Operation Barbarossa).

According to the Institute for the Study of Warfare, “swamps can be difficult, if not impossible in some places, for mechanized forces to cross when wet.”

It all depends on the type and scale of military operation that Russia might have in mind. In the early stages of a conflict, air and missile attacks would be more important than a wave of mechanized units.

“The sky wouldn’t be a factor for Russian precision-guided ballistic or cruise missiles, or even some of their more accurate long-range artillery systems,” said Massicot, who was previously a senior analyst at the Pentagon on the Russian army. “Cloud cover is especially not a factor for fixed locations like military installations or command and control where coordinates are known.”

Russia has moved a significant number of Iskander ballistic missiles, which have a range of about 300 miles (450 km) near Ukraine over the past month.

To the east, Ukrainian frontline positions have not moved for years; long-range missiles and artillery could target them regardless of the weather – perhaps providing a breakthrough point for Russian armour.

Attack aircraft, which would be tasked with attacking moving Ukrainian units, would need relatively clear skies. So would planes to drop air assault troops into the conflict zone; according to defense analysts Janes, “several Airborne Forces (VDV) units have also been identified deploying to Belarus.”

A low cloud base hampers air operations as well as satellite reconnaissance, and could blunt Russia’s considerable air superiority, making what one military analyst called “a fairer fight.”

But it’s a double-edged sword. Dense cloud (and night) cover would allow the Russians to advance troops to the starting lines undetected from above. If the Kremlin decided to attack, a period of bad weather followed by clear skies once operations were underway would be optimal.

The sky would also count for Ukrainians. If they opted for a highly maneuverable defense, they would need airborne intelligence provided by the US and NATO to focus limited resources at key points to blunt the Russian advance.

A soldier walks through muddy trenches in Mariupol, covered in a thin layer of snow.

Of course, weather conditions aren’t the only — or primary — consideration for the Kremlin. Progress (or lack of progress) in negotiations on Russia’s published demands sent to the US and NATO will likely be the deciding factor. Devising a justification – a casus belli – for going to war would provide an important message to a skeptical Russian public. Shaping information warfare is a key element of Russian strategy.

A changing climate

Krakovska, author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released last year, says there is a clear link between climate change and Ukraine’s changing winters.

This is particularly pronounced in eastern Ukraine, where winter temperatures are around 3 degrees Celsius warmer on average than they were in the 1960s.

“Thirty years ago, we would have had snow cover, especially at [eastern Ukraine]for at least three months of the cold season, and we would have freezing nights for about five months,” Kralovska said.

“In 2020, we didn’t really have any winter at all, just a few subzero days, and we didn’t get a lot of snow, just a little.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin used to be ambivalent about global warming. In 2003 he even said that “Maybe climate change is not so bad in a country as cold as ours? 2-3 degrees wouldn’t hurt.”

More recently, he has acknowledged the damage it is causing to Russia’s environment.

Now, that could affect his generals’ calculations.

Winter weather in Ukraine can be temperamental, but the outlook for the rest of February in Kyiv is milder than average, local meteorologists say, with most daytime temperatures well above freezing and splashing very occasional sunshine.

Timko, the Ukrainian groundhog, apparently thinks Rasputitsa Mud might be a little earlier this year. He didn’t see his shadow when he came out of hibernation last week.

CNN’s Angela Dewan, Brandon Miller and Gianluca Mezzofiore contributed to this report.


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