In 1812, Napoleon’s Grande Armee of some 300,000 troops was invading Russia. During the Battle of Berezina (26-29 November 1812), the remnants of Napoleon’s army tried to flee. Just 20-30,000 troops remained. Ninety per cent of Napoleon’s army was killed or wounded during the campaign.
Rightly or wrongly, European newspapers attributed the defeat not to Russian military prowess, but to the harsh cold the French army experienced. A British political cartoon of the time showed the French army trampled underfoot, with Napoleon held in the icy grip of a half man/half bear. ‘General Frost shaveing Little Boney’ was the caption.
Is history now repeating itself? Is Vladimir Putin relying on ‘General Frost’ to do what his missiles, tanks and endlessly-changing military commanders have failed to do? Is he relying on winter to finally end Ukraine’s stubborn resistance?
At the beginning of November, it was reported that 4.5m Ukrainians were without power. By the end of the month that figure had risen to 6m as Russia continued to attack Ukraine’s infrastructure. As this article was being written, the BBC was reporting that ‘Russian missile attacks force emergency power shutdowns’.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg has already claimed that Russia is ‘using winter as a weapon of war’ and – even more worryingly – Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko is openly discussing the possible evacuation of the capital.
The problem for Ukraine is that much of its power grid has traditionally relied on Russian parts. However innovative its engineers are, they cannot patch up the country’s infrastructure indefinitely. Temperatures are already hovering around freezing and – with many apartment-dwellers relying on communal heating – the next three months could bring some very severe hardships.
So will Putin succeed? Will his strategy of relying on ‘General Frost’ shorten the war and give him what he wants? Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has already made his ‘without heat or without you?’ speech. To ‘without heat’ you can also add ‘without light and power’ as well – but Ukraine will fight on and the West will keep supplying weapons. And, as the winter of 1812 showed, cold weather is traditionally thought to favour the defending forces.
The best guess at the moment – as the BBC reported recently, quoting the views of US intelligence – is that the fighting will slow down as both sides look to ‘refit, resupply and reconstitute’ ready for a further offensive in the spring.
Worryingly, the indications are that Vladimir Putin is quite happy with the idea of a ‘long war.’ As one commentator said, this is a war he ‘cannot win but cannot afford to lose.’
There have been some protests, but he enjoys approval ratings at home that Western politicians can only dream of – and despite the seemingly endless rumours of a coup, nothing has even come close to happening.
That, of course, is the worst possible news for the frozen citizens of Ukraine. Nor is it good news for the West, with continuing pressure on energy supplies and food prices. Sadly, it seems inevitable that we will be marking the first anniversary of the war on February 24th next year – and that Putin’s offensive will grind on for many months after that.