A Little Mud Won’t Stop Putin

Frozen ground may aid a Russian invasion of Ukraine, but it’s not a decisive factor.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Ukrainian service members work on their tank.
Ukrainian service members work on their tank.
Ukrainian service members work on their tank close to the front line with Russian-backed separatists near Lysychansk, Luhansk region, on April 7, 2021. STR/AFP via Getty Images

As the world tries to discern what Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to do with Ukraine, attention has turned to a humble indicator that may offer some clue as to when a potential invasion may take place: mud. 

TV pundits, journalists, and even U.S. President Joe Biden have zeroed in on the idea that the Russian military needs to wait to launch an attack until at least mid-February, when the ground around Ukraine’s borders will be frozen hard, enabling Russia’s ground forces to roll in without getting bogged down in mud. 

“He's going to have to wait a little bit until the ground is frozen so he can cross,” Biden said at a press conference earlier this month. 

As the world tries to discern what Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to do with Ukraine, attention has turned to a humble indicator that may offer some clue as to when a potential invasion may take place: mud. 

TV pundits, journalists, and even U.S. President Joe Biden have zeroed in on the idea that the Russian military needs to wait to launch an attack until at least mid-February, when the ground around Ukraine’s borders will be frozen hard, enabling Russia’s ground forces to roll in without getting bogged down in mud. 

“He’s going to have to wait a little bit until the ground is frozen so he can cross,” Biden said at a press conference earlier this month. 

It’s an alluring concept, one that appears to offer some lodestar in a time of deep uncertainty. While frozen ground would certainly make life easier for Russia’s military, experts believe that the Russian mechanized forces, which have undergone multiple rounds of upgrades and investments in recent years, have the capabilities to invade at any time of year.

“There are multiple factors, the ground is one of them, but it’s not in itself determinative,” said Rob Lee, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who previously served in the U.S. Marine Corps. “Russia is well versed in operating in this area,” he said. 

Frozen ground is just one of several seasonal impacts that would be taken into account when planning a military operation, said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military with the think tank CNA. Weather can affect signals communications and the ability to conduct airstrikes, as well as the amount of foliage on the trees, which in spring would provide some cover for Russian forces. 

While deep winter and late summer offer the most optimal operating environments for Russian forces, they train for all conditions. “The Russian military trains in all types of weather—their training cycles extend all year round, so they do have some familiarity with shifting ground conditions,” said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher with the Rand Corp. who specializes in Russian defense. 

There are plenty of historical examples. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 was first delayed, then stymied, by the spring and then the autumn rains; only frozen weather got the advance moving again—until Soviet forces took advantage of a deep freeze to counterattack. The Red Army’s last major push in the war started in the winter and finished in the spring, and the technology to keep tanks from getting stuck in the mud has only advanced since then.

“We’ve really moved ahead since World War II, technology has evolved significantly,” Kofman said. 

Russia began an unexplained buildup of troops near Ukraine’s borders in the spring of last year, sparking international concern about Moscow’s intentions. The Kremlin sought to explain away the move as a military exercise and pulled back some of the troops, but it again began surging manpower and materiel to the region late last year. There are now an estimated 130,000 Russian troops massed at various points along Ukraine’s border with Russia and Belarus. 

For months, videos circulating on social media have shown trainloads of Russian military gear, including what appears to be a significant quantity of engineering equipment, pouring into the regions near Ukraine’s border. “This specialized equipment allows them to do maintenance, recover stuck vehicles, bridge small streams or other terrain, which improves their ability to cope with terrain challenges,” Massicot said. “This is a difference between what we saw earlier in 2021, where Russian forces did not have as much logistical equipment with them like this.” Moscow’s growing logistical tail in particular has fueled concerns it may rattle more than just sabers. On Friday, Reuters reported that Russia had dispatched blood units and medical equipment to the border region in another ominous indicator. 

But unlike in wars past, weather and conditions on the ground may not be the deciding factors. A range of factors including a distracted West and Russia’s strong financial reserves have converged to persuade Russia’s leaders, and Putin especially, that the timing may be right to force a resolution to its long-standing concerns about NATO’s eastern expansion, muddy ground or not.

“The decision to go to war is ultimately a political one, and is often made when conditions for war fighting are less lucrative, but the political leaders are far less concerned with that than the other factors that drive the decision-making,” Kofman said. 

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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