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Russia’s Forgotten Enemy in Ukraine: Frostbite

Russian President Putin testing a new sniper rifle. Image Credit: Russian State Media.
Russian President Putin testing a new sniper rifle. Image Credit: Russian State Media.

Much of Russia has long winters, and its citizens are known to be well-prepared for the cold weather that comes with it. The Russian military also regularly trains in the extreme cold, and the Kremlin has even increased its presence in the Arctic region in recent years.

It is therefore baffling that numerous reports suggest that Russian soldiers have been suffering from frostbite in Ukraine. The soldiers’ lack of proper cold-weather clothing, while shortages of fuel have forced many to sleep in unheated tanks and other vehicles, is likely to blame.

“We picked up some indications that some of their soldiers are suffering from frostbite because they lacked the appropriate cold-weather gear for the environment that they’re in … that they haven’t – in addition to food and fuel – even in terms of personal equipment for some of their troops they are having trouble,” a Pentagon official said during Tuesday’s press briefing.

“They’re having trouble and we picked up indications that some troops have actually suffered and been taken out of the fight because of frostbite,” the official added. “So yes, they are having continued logistics and sustainment issues.”

A Mild Winter Until It Wasn’t

The lack of cold weather clothing and equipment may suggest that the Kremlin expected a swift victory in Ukraine, which had experienced a largely mild winter throughout much of January and early February. The weather was even unseasonably mild at the end of February, when Russia launched its unprovoked and unjustified invasion. In fact, some of the coldest weather of the season hit the region after the invasion had begun.

Even as the weather has improved, with daily highs reaching into the 60s this week, nighttime lows have still been hovering in the mid to low-30s throughout much of Ukraine.

Of course, Russian President Vladimir Putin is just the latest warlord to be taken off guard by the extreme chill.

Throughout history, winter has been described as one of the greatest allies of the Russian people. Known as “General Winter” or “General Frost,” cold harsh weather has been credited with helping defeat foreign invaders, and the cold played a significant role in the Swedish invasion of 1707, the French invasion under Napoleon in 1812, the Allied intervention in Russia in 1918-19, and most notably the German invasion in 1941.

Now it seems that General Winter has changed sides and is helping defend Ukraine, and it is the Russian military that is being affected by the cold blast that the general has unleashed. Putin appears to have made the same mistake as the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, and wrongly assumed that a quick victory was in order. Instead, his troops – much like Napoleon’s Grande Armée and Hitler’s Wehrmacht – are now suffering in the extreme cold.

NATO Cold Response 2022

Nearly 3,000 miles from Ukraine, NATO forces are now taking part in Cold Response 2022, the long-planned biannual exercise hosted by Norway. It is not linked to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but is conducted to provide Allied forces with the training to operate in the extreme cold.

Around 30,000 troops, 220 aircraft and 50 vessels from 27 countries are participating in the exercise, and drills are being held on land, in the sea and in the sky. Norway was also required to invite all 57 member states of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), including Russia, to observe the exercise. It is likely many of the Russian soldiers would rather be training there – and equipped with the proper cold weather gear – than freezing in Ukraine right now.

There is an old saying, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only a bad choice of clothing.” Many a Russian soldier now has to deal with those consequences.

Now a Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.