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Russian Troops' Poor Performance And Low Morale May Worsen During A Winter Of More Discontent

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A man walks amid buildings damaged by Russian missiles in Ukraine on Nov. 28, 2022. Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

With Russian troops digging trenches to prepare for an expected winter standoff, it would be easy to conclude that fighting will slow in Ukraine until after the ground thaws in the spring.

But evidence from the Ukrainian battlefields point to a different trajectory.

As a career U.S. special forces officer who conducted field research on the 2008 and 2014 wars in Georgia and Ukraine, it is my view that this war has demonstrated that only one side, the Ukrainians, can execute effective combat maneuvers. I believe that the Ukrainians will attempt to launch a large-scale counteroffensive in late winter when the ground is still frozen.

Winter’s impact on war

Historically, the pace of fighting does slow in the winter.

Weapons and other equipment can freeze up in extreme cold, and it’s much more difficult to shoot a weapon while wearing thick gloves.

Shorter days are a factor. Despite technological advances, most of the fighting during this war has occurred during the day.

But this winter may be different for the Ukrainian military.

First, Ukrainian winters are not nearly as cold and snowy as many believe.

Donetsk, for example, has an average temperature of nearly 25 degrees Fahrenheit (-4 degrees Celsius) in January and February.

Its snowiest month, January, averages only 4.9 inches of snow, or .12 meters. Both January and February average just as many rainy days as snowy days – roughly two days of each.

A brief history of Russian attack

Since the invasion began in February 2022, Russia made most of its gains in the first month of the war when it seized Kherson, surrounded Mariupol, and was on the doorsteps of Kyiv and Kharkiv.

But Russia soon gave up on Kyiv and withdrew all its forces from the north.

Failing to achieve quick victory, Russia instead settled on making incremental gains in the east and south. Over the next five months, Russia captured Mariupol, but little else of tactical or strategic value.

During this time, Ukraine built up its combat power with new weaponry from the West and planned a large counteroffensive, which it initiated on Aug. 28, 2022.

In the first week of the counteroffensive, Ukraine liberated more territory than Russia had captured in the previous five months.

A man wearing a military uniform is standing near several large trucks that are being loaded with missiles.
A Ukrainian serviceman loads a truck with American Javelin anti-tank missiles on Feb. 11, 2022.
Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images)

The success of the counteroffensive showed that Ukraine’s military was superior to Russia’s in every category with the exception of size. It had better doctrine, leaders, strategy, culture and will – and it had just proved that it could effectively fight battles with a combination of artillery, tanks, soldiers and air attacks.

By Sept. 12, 2022, Ukraine had liberated much of Kharkiv Oblast as Russian troops routinely fled from their positions.

After liberating the entirety of Kharkiv Oblast in early October 2022, Ukraine turned its attention to Kherson in the south. This was a different fight, and in some ways Ukraine’s military followed Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu’s axiom of “winning without fighting.”

The Ukrainians were able to conquer much of the territory without using many troops on the ground.

Instead, Ukraine used long-range rockets supplied by the U.S. and NATO allies to bombard Russian bases and supply lines that were previously unreachable. These attacks left Russian forces west of the Dnipro River in an untenable position.

Realizing this, Russia shockingly announced on Nov. 9, 2022, that it was withdrawing from Kherson. Two days later, Russia had completed its withdrawal from the west bank of the river.

What to expect from Russia

Over the course of the war, Russia has demonstrated little ability to conduct effective combat operations. This is not something that Russia can change overnight or over the course of the winter.

Russia’s best forces have been decimated throughout the conflict, and it is now increasingly relying on untrained conscripts.

Likewise, Russia is exhausting much of its weaponry as international sanctions against them are limiting Russia’s wartime production. Aside from Iran, few nations are providing military aid to Russia.

Russia’s military is now less trained, has lower morale, and has significantly fewer weapons and less ammunition than it had at the beginning of the current war.

As a result, Russia lacks the ability to conduct large-scale attacks, and it is left with little option but to continue what it has been doing: conducting missile strikes against targets that are either defenseless or offer little strategic value.

Limiting Russia’s options further, these strikes have been less effective as the war has progressed.

Early in the war, most of Russia’s missiles made it through Ukraine’s limited air defenses. With the help of western air defense systems, Ukraine was shooting down 50% of Russian missiles in October and is now intercepting over 80% of them.

Winter should not affect these types of combat operations.

But snow will have an impact on Russia’s already stressed and underperforming logistical system, and the cold will further lower – if that is possible – the already low morale of Russia’s poorly outfitted and undertrained soldiers.

What to expect from Ukraine

As the smaller military, Ukraine cannot afford to take heavy losses.

Thus far, it has used a strategy of defending territory when it could, retreating when it should to preserve combat power, and attacking when the opportunities have presented themselves.

A group of soldiers are sitting atop an armoured vehicle.
Ukrainian soldiers sitting on an armored vehicle near the the Russian front line in Donetsk in May 2022.
Alex Chan Tsz Yuk/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Ukraine effectively employed this strategy to defend Kyiv in the first month of the war and during the September 2022 counteroffensive to reclaim the Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts.

An important question must be asked. Why did it take six months for Ukraine to launch its counteroffensive?

One reason is that Ukraine had to wait several months for promised Western aid to arrive at its bases. In my view, a significant factor is the lengthy amount of time it takes to plan large counteroffensives and to position supplies, equipment and forces.

The fact that Ukraine conducted the counterattacks in succession suggests that Ukraine lacks the combat power to conduct two large-scale counterattacks at the same time.

Ukraine is going to need time to regroup, refit and plan for its next large-scale operation.

Thus, it seems reasonable that Ukraine will have to wait at least 30 to 45 days – maybe more – before it is ready to execute its next counteroffensive, which would be in the heart of winter.

While conducting an attack in winter may be difficult, off-road movement in the spring could become impossible, as the Russians discovered during their initial invasion in muddy and wet terrain.

It seems reasonable to conclude that Ukraine may wish to initiate its next counteroffensive while the ground is still frozen – and Russian troop morale is at its lowest point since the invasion.

The Conversation

Liam Collins does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Chinese Spy Balloon Over The US: An Aerospace Expert Explains How The Balloons Work And What They Can See

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A Chinese surveillance balloon in U.S. airspace before it was shot down by the U.S. military. Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The U.S. military shot down what U.S. officials called a Chinese surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4, 2023. Officials said that the U.S. Navy planned to recover the debris, which is in shallow water.

The U.S. and Canada tracked the balloon as it crossed the Aleutian Islands, passed over Western Canada and entered U.S. airspace over Idaho. Officials of the U.S. Department of Defense confirmed on Feb. 2, 2023, that the military was tracking the balloon as it flew over the continental U.S. at an altitude of about 60,000 feet, including over Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. The base houses the 341st Missile Wing, which operates nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The next day, Chinese officials acknowledged that the balloon was theirs but denied it was intended for spying or meant to enter U.S. airspace. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the balloon’s incursion led him to cancel his trip to Beijing. He had been scheduled to meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang on Feb. 5 and 6.

The Pentagon has reported that a second suspected Chinese balloon was seen over Latin America. On Feb. 4, officials told reporters that a third Chinese surveillance balloon was operating somewhere else in the world, and that the balloons are part of a Chinese military surveillance program.

Monitoring an adversary from a balloon dates back to 1794, when the French used a hot air balloon to track Austrian and Dutch troops in the Battle of Fleurus. We asked aerospace engineer Iain Boyd of the University of Colorado Boulder to explain how spy balloons work and why anyone would use one in the 21st century.

What is a spy balloon?

A spy balloon is literally a gas-filled balloon that is flying quite high in the sky, more or less where we fly commercial airplanes. It has some sophisticated cameras and imaging technology on it, and it’s pointing all of those instruments down at the ground. It’s collecting information through photography and other imaging of whatever is going on down on the ground below it.

A high-altitude Chinese balloon drifted over the U.S., entering over Montana and moving over the central portion of the country, causing the U.S. to send fighter jets into the air and triggering an angry response from the U.S. government.

Why would someone want to use a spy balloon instead of just using spy satellites?

Satellites are the preferred method of spying from overhead. Spy satellites are above us today, typically at one of two different types of orbit.

The first is called low Earth orbit, and, as the name suggests, those satellites are relatively close to the ground. But they’re still several hundred miles above us. For imaging and taking photographs, the closer you are to something, the more clearly you can see it, and this applies to spying as well. The satellites that are in low Earth orbit have the advantage that they’re closer to the Earth so they’re able to see things more clearly than satellites that are farther away.

The disadvantage these low Earth orbit satellites have is that they are continually moving around the Earth. It takes them about 90 minutes to do one orbit around the Earth. That turns out to be pretty fast in terms of taking clear photographs of what’s going on below.

The second type of satellite orbit is called geosynchronous orbit, and that’s much farther away. It has the disadvantage that it’s harder to see things clearly when you’re very, very far away. But they have the advantage of what we call persistence, allowing satellites to capture images continuously. In those orbits, you’re essentially overlooking the exact same piece of ground on the Earth’s surface all the time because the satellite moves in exactly the same way the earth rotates – it rotates at the exact same speed.

a black-and-white view from high above a seaport showing a submarine
A U.S. satellite photo showing a Soviet submarine in port in 1982.
National Reconnaissance Office

A balloon in some ways gets the best of those. These balloons are much, much closer to the ground than any of the satellites, so they can see even more clearly. And then, of course, balloons are moving, but they’re moving relatively slowly, so they also have a degree of persistence. However, spying is not usually done these days with balloons because they are a relatively easy target and are not completely controllable.

What types of surveillance are spy balloons capable of?

I don’t know what’s on this particular spy balloon, but it’s likely to be different kinds of cameras collecting different types of information.

These days, imaging is conducted across different regions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Humans see in a certain range of this spectrum, the visible spectrum. And so if you have a camera and you take a photograph of your dog, that’s a visible photograph. That’s one of the things spy aircraft do. They take regular photographs, although they have very good zoom capabilities to be able to magnify what they’re seeing quite a lot.

But you can also gather different kinds of information in other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Another fairly well-known one is infrared. If it’s nighttime, a camera operating in the visible part of the spectrum is not going to show you anything. It’s all going to be dark. But an infrared camera can pick up things from heat in the dark.

How do these balloons navigate?

Most of these balloons literally go where the wind blows. There can be a little bit of navigation, but there are certainly not people aboard them. They are at the mercy of whatever the weather is. They sometimes have guiding apparatus on them that change a balloon’s altitude to catch winds going in particular directions. According to reports, U.S. officials said the Chinese surveillance balloon had propellers to help steer it. If this is confirmed, it means that its operator would have much more control over the path of the balloon.

What are the limits to a nation’s airspace? At what altitude does it become space and anybody’s right to be there?

There is an internationally accepted boundary called the Kármán Line at 62 miles (100 kilometers) altitude. This balloon is well below that, so it is absolutely, definitely in U.S. airspace.

Which countries are known to be using spy balloons?

The Pentagon has had programs over the last few decades studying what can be done with balloons that couldn’t be done in the past. Maybe they’re bigger, maybe they can go higher in the atmosphere so they’re more difficult to shoot down or disable. Maybe they could be more persistent.

The broad interest in this incident illustrates its unusual nature. Few people would expect any country to be actively using spy balloons these days.

The U.S. flew many balloons over the Soviet Union in the 1940s and 1950s, and those were eventually replaced by the high-altitude spy airplanes, the U-2s, and they were subsequently replaced by satellites.

a black and white photograph of a group of men holding ropes attached to a large balloon being inflated from the back of a truck in a desert
Project Moby Dick was an early Cold War-era effort by the U.S. to monitor the Soviet Union using high-altitude balloons.
United States Air Force Public Affairs

I’m sure a number of countries around the world have periodically gone back to reevaluate: Are there other things we could do now with balloons that we couldn’t do before? Do they close some gaps we have from satellites and airplanes?

What does that say about the nature of this balloon, which China confirmed is theirs?

China has complained for many years about the U.S. spying on China through satellites, through ships. And China is also well known for engaging in somewhat provocative behavior, like in the South China Sea, sailing close to other nations’ boundaries and saber-rattling. I think it falls into that category.

The balloon doesn’t pose any real threat to the U.S. I think sometimes China is just experimenting to see how far they can push things. This isn’t really very advanced technology. It’s not serving any real military purpose. I think it’s much more likely some kind of political message.

This article has been updated to include news that the balloon has been shot down by the U.S. military.

The Conversation

Iain Boyd receives funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Energy, NASA, and Lockheed-Martin.

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The UK preps for what could become the largest strike ever for the country

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Much of the UK is at a standstill after what could be the largest strike ever in their country.

Up to half a million British teachers, civil servants, and train drivers walked out over pay in the largest coordinated strike action for a decade on Wednesday, with unions threatening more disruption as the government digs its heels in over pay demands.

The mass walkouts across the country shut schools, halted most rail services, and forced the military to be put on standby to help with border checks on a day dubbed “Walkout Wednesday.” According to unions, as many as 300 thousand teachers took part, they’re the biggest group involved.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak condemned the strikes which forced millions of children to miss school.

His government has taken a hard line against the unions, arguing that giving in to demands for large wage hikes would further fuel Britain’s inflation problem. With inflation running at more than 10 percent the highest level in four decades Britain has seen a wave of strikes in recent months across the public and private sectors, including health and transport workers, Amazon warehouse employees, and Royal Mail postal staff.

Next week, nurses, ambulance staff, paramedics, emergency call handlers, and other healthcare workers are set to stage more walkouts, while firefighters this week also backed a nationwide strike.

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The Brazilian congress could soon criminalize people who refuse the COVID vaccines

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Six bills currently in the Brazilian congress will crack down on any opposition to the COVID vaccines.

The bills criminalize everything from cutting in line to receive a vaccine to people who spread “fake news” about how vaccines work. People could also face 1 to 3 years in prison if they omit or oppose the mandatory vaccination of children or adolescents in a “public health emergency”. The project also criminalizes, with a penalty of two to eight years in prison, people who refuse to take the mandatory doses of vaccines.

And the same punishment also applies to those who spread “false news” about the vaccines or how they work. If the individual is a public employee, the penalty is doubled.

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