War Analysis

War in Ukraine: Gearing up for end of winter fighting

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Ukrainian President Zelensky and Russian President Putin meet in 2019 (image by manhhai via Flickr)

Dr Lee Duffield provided an appraisal of the Ukraine war for IA on day one; updated it seven months into the fighting; and here looks at dangerous portends for the coming few months.

FIGHTING THROUGH the Winter in Ukraine, in January, which is concentrated around the Donbas town of Soledar close to Bakhmut, has promised a bitter escalation when the season changes.


Nothing much can be supposed about how it will go in that war because of the character of new weapons and military technology, and the unpredictable involvement of many parties.

On day one, 24 February 2022, it was supposed that Russian columns would easily roll westward into the capital city, Kyiv.

As the supposition went, if those columns were opposed, the Ukrainians might lose a tank battle on the plains between the Don and Dnieper Rivers, like the horrendous clashes in the same region between massed German and Soviet tanks during World War II. Military almanacks a year ago showed Ukraine had available possibly 1,200 tanks of all kinds, Russia had more than four times as many, and at least on paper overwhelming air supremacy.

Outsiders who were doing the supposing might have thought that Ukraine could settle it by finally giving away the Donbas region in the country’s east. It would be because, again on paper, that territory bordering on Russia was the main area settled by Russian colonists in the past, where more “Russian” Ukrainians are concentrated today.

But the act of supposing from the outside is mostly not worth the paper it is written on; the people in the war are the ones who know what it is about.


For a start, we learn that “Russian” Ukrainians overall stayed on the Ukrainian side, maybe belonging to the country, but not the ethnicity.

Also, changes in the conduct of warfare meant that past wars, even on the familiar, undulating plains so abused in earlier conflicts, would not be replayed. Modern infantry fighting in large formations is done now using light to medium armoured vehicles, most of which carry soldiers, and which can also do the traditional work of tanks, to bust into enemy defences.

At the start of 2022, the Ukrainians were prepared for that, and to an extent equipped for it, and better off than they would have been if thrust into a classic tank battle.

Moreover, precision rocketry and use of drones changed the artillery battle, and made the game much more dangerous for conventional aircraft.

The Ukrainians have been able to stand up better than expected in that new world of warfare.

A third contradiction of the past, and contradiction of expectations, was the response of the Western alliance, which decided early to back the Ukrainians with armaments, ammunition, other supplies and access to money.

It was not massive straight away, but as the Ukrainians would say, every bit helps; so there was much publicity surrounding the donation of 90 Australian armoured vehicles, the Bushmasters, with a clear supplementary message: “send more"!


Developments in the last few weeks have seen a gearing up for large-scale fighting as the northern winter ends. The dates for winter, generally 22 December to 21 March, accurately represent how the big freeze in Europe goes on and on. With two months to go, everybody can safely suppose the two sides will be ready for a resumption of full-scale operations once the temperatures rise and the mud dries out.

There are two scenarios being prepared for, where it comes to getting weapons and arming up.

The Western powers have agreed to fit out Ukraine immediately with more of the medium to light armoured vehicles, several models running on half-tracks or wheels, some armed with small cannon.

Apart from the lighter Bushmasters, already mentioned, the United States has this month committed to send 50 of its Bradley armoured fighting vehicles, possibly to be followed with Stryker class vehicles; similar numbers have been pledged by France, with its AMX-10 RCs, and by Germany, which will provide its Marder infantry fighting vehicle.


However, will they change and go back in time to full-scale tank warfare?

According to the Politico news service, Ukraine commanders are thinking back to the past, and ahead to the spring, to the prospect of such actual battles using heavy armour.

There, bigger, battle tanks would have to be deployed, admittedly backed up with devastating effect by the new infantry combat vehicles, carrying soldiers, stepping up the job that infantry used to have, on foot, moving behind and through the lines of tanks.

Considering the shipment of Bradleys or Marders, Politico said:

'None of these are the kind of modern fighting machines that Ukraine really wants, such as France’s state-of-the-art Leclerc, Germany’s Leopard or the US Army’s M1 Abrams — which are more mobile, accurate and have longer range compared with the old Soviet tanks — but the moves signal that tank deliveries are no longer off-limits.'

Another report from the same source said European governments are likely to get good public support if they agree on the battle tanks:

'Europeans are strongly in favour of backing Ukraine in the face of Russia’s illegal and brutal war, a new Eurobarometer poll released moments ago shows, with more than two-thirds backing the EU’s response including sanctions, humanitarian and military aid.'

Heavy battle tanks are around 60 tonnes, use sophisticated electronics for their surveillance, communication and fire control, variously will deploy a big-calibre gun or fire rockets, have advanced armour protection of various kinds, and additional features, like generating clouds of smoke so they can’t be easily seen.

The British heavy battle tank is the Challenger, and by 10 January the British Government was talking of setting the ball rolling, by sending some Challengers to Ukraine.


This is not to say that there actually will be heavy tanks lined up for battle in the spring, at least on the Ukrainian side. It might still be too much to suppose.

The German Government has to date, under its supply contracts, actively prevented third parties such as Spain from passing on any Leopard tanks to Ukraine. That is despite that weapon being heavily favoured, as the most commonly used tank across the continent, and valued for speed and manoeuvrability.

In the case of Germany there are several objections and obstacles: fear that Ukraine will push too far, creating worse danger for the neighbours; needing to keep their weapons for themselves; a left-wing lobby in the government, dominated by the Social Democrat Party, arguing that no warfare ever helps peace.

Germany’s exposed position on the economic side has been a disincentive to take any lead in arming Ukraine and further destroying links with Russia. It bet heavily on good business relations with Russia and is now in trouble over the curtailing of supply, because of the war. Until last February, it was drawing one-third of its natural gas supplies for industry and household use from Russia.

On the other side are still lines of Russian T14 Armata tanks. Russian air power has not dominated in any phase of the war to date, but has to be a factor if they start rolling out the heavy tanks. That might make up for, or be hampered by problems with the quality of troops, where, like Tsar Nicholas II before him in World War I, the President, Vladimir Putin, will be relying precariously on massive formations of poorly prepared conscripts.   

Among his vast journalistic experience, Dr Lee Duffield has served as ABC's European correspondent. He is also an esteemed academic. He is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Pacific Journalism Review.

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