Russia’s winter soldiers now face a long, hot summer in the steppe

When Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, it was winter.

It was a war of snow, sleet, and thick, sinking mud that clung to boots and caterpillar tracks, pinning hapless Russian columns onto narrow roads where they fell to Ukrainian gunners.

Well it’s a different story.

On the fields of Donbass, a kind late spring sun dries the earth, and the fresh green shoots of young plants appear, even where rocket hits have left black trails on the steppes.

In the wetlands around Slaviansk, the distant sounds of battle are drowned out by the croaking of frogs.

Southwest of Izyum, the Ukrainian defenders have cut new trenches in the rich steppe grasslands as they prepare an in-depth defense to counter the grueling Russian offensive here.

The trenches show the same cross-section of local geology known from the Winter War – but now the fertile black topsoil is baked dry and the ocher clay beneath is rock hard.

In theory, this is the moment that the Russian offensive has been waiting for.

Tanks and other vehicles, restricted to paved roads, should now be able to roam freely, making the most of their mobility and the range of their guns in the hilly, open fields of the Donbass. Infantry can walk and run without their boots getting stuck in a sucking swamp.

But the tide of war has turned with the seasons.

While Russia’s major offensive in the Donbass has made painfully slow progress, Ukraine has made significant headway with its own counter-offensive around Kharkiv.

As Ukrainian confidence grows, there is an unspoken expectation – perhaps premature, perhaps overly optimistic – that it could be Ukrainian tanks, not Russian ones, that will be stirring up dust this summer as they sweep across the prairie.

However, there are a number of factors that could prove equally challenging for Russian and Ukrainian troops hoping to take advantage of the good weather.

First, these vast, hilly fields aren’t as friendly as they look. Well-groomed farming generally means no mines, while fallow fields mean you have to watch your steps. But not infrequently, freshly plowed soil and skull and crossbones warning signs overlap in a confusing manner.

Pro-Ukrainian messaging app Telegram recently published video of two Russian tanks allegedly hitting landmines. Modern anti-tank weapons like Javelin missiles remain a deadly armor threat in the open, and both sides have drones overhead, making it difficult to achieve an element of surprise.

Second, a Blitzkrieg needs a breakthrough. But when your tanks find another line behind the front line, and then another, it can be difficult to reach. It reveals no military secrets to report that the Ukrainians have dug deep into the Donbass. If the Russians do the same, the Ukrainians could find themselves in similar trouble.

But most importantly, the Summer Campaign has been dominated by one weapon so far – and it’s not the Main Battle Tank.


An injured Ukrainian soldier at the Azovstal Steel Plant in Mariupol, Ukraine, in a picture taken May 10 by Dmytro Orest Kozatskyi, now a Russian prisoner

Ukrainian-controlled Donbass is surrounded on three sides. You can hear the constant drumming of cannons from almost anywhere in this vast outcrop, which is 50 miles wide at its mouth. This is now an artillery war. Whoever can throw more grenades and rockets farther, faster and more accurately than their opponent wins the duel.

“I’ve had three birthdays since the war began,” said one Ukrainian infantryman, referring to close encounters in which he nearly lost his life.

“One of them was a Grad rocket; it landed so close I got a concussion.”

None of them, he said, involved bullets fired from guns. Artillery dominance is such that “if you get into a gunfight, it means something went wrong,” he added.

Fighting to contain the Russian offensive around Izyum, this soldier seemed quite confident. The Russian attacks over the past month were preceded by intense bombardment, only for infantry and tanks to break off the attack as soon as they encountered serious resistance, he said.

However, further south in the Donbass ledge, locals are confused and nervous.

“It’s getting closer,” said a civilian in the town of Druzhkivka. “Every night you hear it’s gotten a little bit closer.”

It’s going to be a long, hot summer before the rain softens the ground again.

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022] Russia’s winter soldiers now face a long, hot summer in the steppe

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