TechThe winter war: Ukraine with Western equipment versus freezing Russians

The winter war: Ukraine with Western equipment versus freezing Russians

Ukrainian soldiers equipped with Bundeswehr winter uniforms.
Ukrainian soldiers equipped with Bundeswehr winter uniforms.
Images source: © Getty Images | Scott Peterson
4:33 PM EST, November 12, 2023

The Ukrainians and Russians are now facing their second winter in the trenches. Last year's instances revealed that the formidable "General Frost" betrayed Vladimir Putin, and this season might bear a similar narrative. In this article, we survey the technology and equipment each side will deploy during the winter period.

Last year, Ukrainians had an edge over Russians regarding winter equipment, and this will probably be the case again. Western nations and various aid organizations have restarted deliveries of winter clothing, tents, sleeping bags, and generators to the defenders.

The latest aid package from Germany comprises 30,000 winter jackets, and Canada will provide winter equipment worth 25 million dollars. A vital portion of the American aid package, worth 425 million dollars, also includes winter uniforms.

In contrast, the Russians have not had, and continue to lack such "luxuries". As was the case last winter, they have not received suitable winter equipment. Last year, this resulted in significant frostbite-related injuries and numerous incidences of hypothermia. According to the Euromaidan Press, in February 2023, 30% of wounded Russians were hospitalized as a result of frostbite.

Until now, particularly mobilized Russians have received equipment from the Soviet Union era, often in a poor state. However, this year may see some improvement as Belarusians plan to mass-produce new uniforms for the Russians, and local groups initiate gathering campaigns to equip soldiers. Additionally, winter uniforms from North Korea may also reach Putin's army.

The Russians will likely leverage ballistic missiles, strategic maneuvers, and drones against Ukraine's crucial infrastructure. Such targets include, for instance, medium voltage transformer stations or gas network nodes vital for heating Ukrainian urban dwellers.

Recently, the Russians have been measured in deploying ballistic missiles, tactical missiles, and Shahed drones against Ukrainian targets. Now, Putin's forces may intensify their attacks to overload the enemy's anti-aircraft systems.

Simultaneously, the West has supplied additional anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems to Ukraine, even utilizing outdated AIM-9M Sidewinder missiles or MIM-23 HAWK. They suffice to combat simple targets at a minimum cost. Although the Ukrainians value the German Gepards, their supply is quite limited compared to the existing needs.

Before the frost strikes, mud will be the nightmare

Before the frost takes hold, both warring factions will have to endure muddy conditions that essentially immobilize the ability to attack from certain directions. Fortified roads are "guarded" by artillery and anti-tank weaponry, so for about a month, battles will mostly be limited to infantry assaults supported by auxiliary equipment.

Mud also adversely affects the state of the weaponry, increasing its failure rate. This applies to both firearms and heavy equipment like howitzers. Because of the mud, obstacles may occur, and in extreme cases (especially due to neglectful care), guns cease to function.

Effect of frost on the war

After the frost ensues, heavy equipment usage becomes possible, but at the same time, it becomes significantly harder to conceal. This holds true for infantry soldiers as well, who will be noticeably easier to detect by drones of the FlyEye kind and snipers with thermal imaging scopes.

This implies that any effort to warm up or even prepare a hot meal using fire can pose a risk. Last winter, Ukrainians sought to survey the frontline with thermal imaging drones. When Russians were spotted, artillery was deployed, or unmanned devices with grenade payloads were dispatched.

It's noteworthy that the usage of commercial drones was more hampered in winter, as batteries in negative temperatures have a shorter span and pose more challenges when recharging.

Similarly, frost can cause essential elements to freeze and reduce the efficacy of lubricants used in, for example, howitzers. This adversely affects the operation of the weapons system and the speed of changing positions in the case of towed howitzers.

Thermal imaging in winter

In recent years, thermal imaging cameras have become available to practically all interested parties. It's now possible to purchase a drone like the Anafi Thermal Parrot or a hunting thermal imaging scope like the Pulsar Thermion 2 XP50 PRO. Such apparatus can detect a human on open terrain from a distance of approximately 1.15 miles.

Compared to night vision, it's much harder to deceive thermal imaging. The latter applies special coatings to fabrics used to sew uniforms, which limits the amount of reflected light. In contrast, thermal imaging cameras operate on a completely different principle, based on heat emission in relation to the surroundings.

The lower the temperature difference between the heat source and the environment, the worse. Therefore, a person will be detected much more easily at a temperature of -4 degrees Fahrenheit than at around 59 degrees Fahrenheit.

Consequently, the only ways to evade thermal imaging are to shield the guarded point with a thermal barrier or to trap all the human-induced heat inside clothing of the same temperature as the surroundings.

Both methods are challenging to implement in a static form and are virtually impossible when moving in the open. Thus, the use of thermal imaging by sharpshooters and snipers operating in Ukraine is fully justified.

Stationary camouflage can be provided by Relv Eclipse blinds or Berberis masking nets, hung over a trench, tent or sniper position. Their breathability is key to success, but soldiers also need to remember not to generate excess heat, such as by using a diesel generator or Esbit type stoves.

Thick clouds or fog are the only environmental conditions that disrupt the proficiency of thermal imaging. Consequently, the Russians stage attacks at dawn or dusk, when the surface temperature of tank armor is most similar to the environmental factors. They also modify the exhaust systems to divert exhaust gases closer to the ground.

This is a makeshift method and substitutes multi-spectrum camouflage mounted on tanks and additional small generators, termed as Auxiliary Power Units (APU), that power essential electronics in vehicles.

A small generator with power up to 20 kW generates considerably less heat and consumes less fuel than a main engine with power of 1000 HP or more. Industry-built generators of this kind are seen, for instance, in tanks from the T-80 family and Ukrainian-modified T-72 tanks marked as AMT.

Modern technology also necessitates changes in preparing meals under field conditions. As we have noted, using an open fire for heating poses a danger, hence, chemical heaters are the preferred choice at the front lines. The most prevalent current solutions generate heat after water is poured into them (a reaction between magnesium and iron with salt water), but there are even more effective solutions that use air as an activator.

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