Russian President Vladimir Putin signed papers Wednesday officially “annexing” four Ukrainian provinces into Russia even as his forces face continued losses on the ground, setting the stage for what U.S. officials believe will be a long, bloody winter with both sides shooting it out on a frozen battlefield.
Mr. Putin’s claimed annexation — roundly rejected by Ukraine, the U.S., and virtually every other government on the planet — signals that the Kremlin has no intention of abandoning its territorial claims in Ukraine despite major defeats over the past two weeks by a well-coordinated, crushing Ukrainian counteroffensive. Ukrainian troops scored fresh gains in that counterattack on Wednesday, reportedly pushing Russian troops out of more villages in southern and eastern Ukraine, undercutting Moscow’s claims that the front lines have “stabilized.”
But Pentagon officials conceded this week that Kyiv’s highly effective counteroffensive campaign is about to become much more difficult as troops contend with plummeting temperatures, frigid conditions and muddy or even frozen terrain. That cold reality seems to be setting the stage for what military strategists describe as a literal and figurative “frozen conflict,” with neither side able to notch any major victories until the increasingly harsh conditions subside.
U.S. officials say that recent military aid packages to Ukraine include cold-weather gear such as gloves and uniforms specially designed for low temperatures. Still, they admit the coming months will be especially difficult for Ukraine, which could see its momentum slowed or perhaps even stopped entirely.
“Weather plays a big factor in any war. And here, what we would anticipate is … as the weather changes, maneuver will be much more challenging.” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura K. Cooper told reporters at the Pentagon this week. “You get really muddy ground. It … increases just the challenge to the average fighter, the average soldier in terms of the impact of the weather on the conditions.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, Connecticut Democrat and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told the Financial Times this week that “the fighting season is drawing short. The Ukrainians have gained the upper hand and need to continue to press their advantage.”
Ukrainian officials say Russia is prepared to use the cold weather to its advantage, just as it did last month by targeting Ukrainian infrastructure in numerous regions of the country.