One of Russia’s greatest military victories came with the coldest European winter in 500 years. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Tsar Peter the Great struggled to repel the formidable forces of Charles XII of Sweden, advancing on Moscow. Then came the Great Frost of 1708–9. Birds were said to have frozen in midflight and dropped dead to the ground. Charles’s army of more than 40,000 men soon lost half its strength from exposure and starvation. In an attempt to escape the cold, the Swedish king led the remnants of his army south into Ukraine to join the Cossack leader, Hetman Ivan Mazepa, and his forces. But the damage was done. The following summer, Peter’s Russian army routed Charles’s weakened forces at the Battle of Poltava, bringing an end to Sweden’s empire and its designs on Russia.

The Swedes were neither the first nor the last European army to suffer the ravages of “General Winter” on Russia’s frontiers. Exacerbated by the vast expanse of the Eurasian landmass, winter fighting there has often proved to be the downfall of great armies. For centuries, this phenomenon has often worked to Russia’s advantage, as a succession of powerful militaries have succumbed to inadequate equipment, deficient supply lines, and poor preparation. But as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine enters the harshest months of the year, there are many indications that this time it may be Russia, rather than its adversary, that suffers the worst consequences.

His Empire for a Horse

Europe’s best-known winter defeat in Russia came in 1812—just over a century after the Battle of Poltava—when Napoleon’s Grande Armée retreated from Moscow. Russia’s scorched-earth tactics, which left the French with no food or shelter along the line of withdrawal, made the effect even more deadly. Yet the greatest casualties had occurred earlier.

The Grande Armée had been almost half a million strong when it crossed the River Neman, the frontier between Prussia and Russia, in June 1812. But it soon lost a third of its strength from summer heat, disease, hunger, and exhaustion as the emperor forced his men on toward Moscow. Although the retreat into Russia’s expanse was unintended at first, Tsar Alexander I’s commanders soon realized the advantage. They kept withdrawing east and did not make a stand until General Mikhail Kutuzov was ordered to halt Napoleon at Borodino, 75 miles west of Moscow. The battle proved a costly victory for the French, even though it enabled them to enter Moscow unopposed.

But it was the approaching winter that proved fatal for the invaders. Napoleon wasted five weeks in Moscow expecting the tsar to come to terms. When the Grande Armée finally started to withdraw to central Europe on October 19, the soldiers were still wearing their summer uniforms. They had also lost their baggage trains and could expect little food along the way. Their greatest deficiency was in cavalry to hold off marauding Cossacks. The shaggy Cossack ponies were accustomed to the winter blizzards, which began a month later, while the last of the chargers and draft horses from western Europe collapsed from the cold and lack of forage. Starving soldiers hacked off their meat even before they were dead. Desertion or surrender was far from a guarantee of survival. Avenging Cossacks waited to skewer enemy soldiers on their long lances; Russian peasants simply slaughtered them with scythes. By early December, Napoleon feared a coup d’état during his absence, and, abandoning his army, headed for Paris before his frozen men could reach safety. By this point, his forces had suffered nearly 400,000 casualties, and he had lost his reputation for invincibility on the battlefield.

Less well known, although perhaps equally significant, was the way Russia won. Despite having lost 200,000 of its own men, Russia’s military leadership was far less concerned about casualties than was Napoleon. Russian officers still treated their peasant soldiers as little better than serfs (and serfdom would not be abolished in Russia for another 50 years). This lack of interest in soldiers’ well-being—and the casual attitude to massive losses through so-called meat-grinder tactics—are apparent in Putin’s army in Ukraine today.

Red Terror, White Frost

Another half century later, in World War I, the attitude of Russia’s military authorities had barely changed. Their men were expendable. Trench life for the rank and file along the eastern front that ran through Belorussia, Galicia, and Romania from 1915 to 1917 was an inhuman experience. And many resented that officers retired each night to the warmth and relative comfort of peasant log huts behind the front.

“Having dug themselves into the ground,” the Russian writer and anti-tsarist Maxim Gorky observed of the enlisted men, “they live in rain and snow, in filth, in cramped conditions; they are being worn out by disease and eaten by vermin; they live like beasts.” Many lacked boots and had to resort to bast shoes made from birch bark. Stations for treating the wounded at the front were almost as primitive as they had been in the Crimean War. This reality was in cruel contrast to the photographs of the tsarina and her grand duchess daughters immaculately dressed as nurses before the February 1917 revolution. 

Winter conditions in the Russian Civil War (1917–­21) were even worse. The most pitiful victims were the civilian refugees fleeing the Bolshevik onslaught, or what became known as the Red Terror. During the winter of 1919, the collapse of Admiral Kolchak’s White Russian armies in Siberia produced terrible scenes along the jammed Trans-Siberian Railroad. Aristocrats, middle-class families, and anti-Bolsheviks of all backgrounds were trying to escape to Vladivostok in the Russian Far East to avoid capture by the Communist Red Army, which was advancing from the Urals.

In World War I, many Russians lacked boots and had to resort to shoes made of birch bark.

By mid-December of that year, the Reds caught up with the tail of the line and took the southern Siberian city and industrial hub of Novo-Nikolaevsk (present-day Novosibirsk), along with numerous trains still blocked there. The city itself was in the grip of a typhus epidemic. All horses, carts, and sledges available had already been taken, so the desperate set out on foot, not knowing that farther ahead in Krasnoyarsk cases had reached more than 30,000.

“A mass retreat is one of the saddest and most despairing sights in the world,” Captain Brian Horrocks, a British officer in the Allied intervention in Russia, wrote. “The sick just fell down and died in the snow.” He was horrified by the squalid conditions faced even by those refugees who had managed to find a place in packed cattle wagons. Most wagons lacked any heating as temperatures dropped to as low as minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit. “The thing which impressed me most was the fortitude with which the women, many of them reared in luxury, were facing their hopeless future,” he wrote. “The menfolk were much more given to self-pity.” Kolchak’s staff officers were by then drinking themselves into oblivion.

As White Russian, Czech, and Polish commanders argued bitterly over priority for their troop trains, starving and frozen refugees were dying at an alarming rate. One officer wrote that trains at some Siberian stations were unloading hundreds of bodies of people who had died from cold and disease. “These bodies were stacked up at the stations like so much cordwood,” another officer wrote. “Those who remained alive never talked, never thought of anything save how they might escape death and get farther and farther away from the Bolsheviks.”

In the northern Caucasus, known for its blazing summer heat, winter could sometimes produce drops in temperature of more than 22 degrees Fahrenheit in less than an hour. In February 1920, General Dmitry Pavlov’s cavalry divisions were caught in the open by a sudden blizzard. Pavlov “lost half of his horses which froze in the steppe,” the Red Army high command noted. But the human losses were far worse. “We left behind in the steppe thousands of men frozen to death, and the blizzard buried them,” a Cossack officer recounted. Those who survived did so by huddling against their horses. Pavlov, who had ignored warnings of the possible change in the weather, suffered severe frostbite himself.

Stalin’s Ice Breakers

By the twentieth century, winter conditions on the Eurasian landmass posed a growing threat not just to humans and horses but also to military weaponry. Sometimes this worked to Russia’s detriment. Despite its disproportionate strength and its massive expenditure of ammunition, the Soviet army failed to break Finnish resistance in the Winter War of 1939–40, following Stalin’s invasion of Finland. The Finns, proving themselves even better practitioners of winter tactics than their invaders, terrorized Red Army soldiers by day and night as their white-camouflaged ski troops launched surprise attacks from forests, then disappeared like ghosts. Their bravery and skill persuaded Stalin to accept Finland’s independence. But it also served as a lesson for the war to come.

During the rapid military mechanization between the two world wars, the Soviet Union had created the largest tank force in the world. The Red Army at least learned that guns and engines needed special lubricants in extreme conditions. Such measures proved key in Stalin’s ability to block Hitler’s armies in front of Moscow in December 1941. Both the German army and the Luftwaffe were unprepared. They had to light fires under their vehicles and aircraft engines to defrost them.

German soldiers referred bitterly to winter conditions as “weather for Russians.” They envied the Red Army’s winter uniforms, with white camouflage suits and padded cotton jackets, which were far more effective than German greatcoats. Russian military historians have attributed the comparatively low rate of frostbite and trench foot among Soviet forces to their old military practice of using layered linen foot bandages instead of socks. German soldiers also suffered more rapidly because their jackboots had steel studs that drained any warmth. In February 1943, when the remnants of Field Marshal Paulus’s Sixth Army finally surrendered at Stalingrad—the psychological turning point of World War II—more than 90,000 German prisoners limped out of the city on frost-ravaged feet. Yet their suffering had been caused less by cold than by Hitler’s orders to hold on there and the inability of German panzers with their narrow tracks to counterattack in the snow.

General Winter also played a major role in the Red Army’s final victory in 1945. The great Soviet breakthrough in January, a charge from the River Vistula to the River Oder, depended on the weather. Russian forecasters had predicted “a strange winter,” with “heavy rain and wet snow” after the hard frosts of January. An order went out to repair boots. Stalin and the Red Army’s supreme command set January 12 as the start date for the offensive, so that the Soviets’ tank armies could take advantage of the deep-frozen ground before any thaw set in. Characteristically, Stalin falsely claimed that he had advanced the date from January 20 to take pressure off the Americans in the Ardennes. (U.S. forces had already halted the German offensive there just after Christmas.) In fact, there was another motive: Stalin wanted to control the bulk of Polish territory before he met U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at Yalta in the first week of February.

More than 90,000 German prisoners limped out of Stalingrad on frost-ravaged feet.

Stalin’s commanders did not let him down. “Our tanks move faster than the trains to Berlin,” boasted the ebullient Colonel Iosif Gusakovsky. He had not bothered to wait for bridging equipment to reach the frontlines before attempting to cross the River Pilica. He simply ordered his leading tanks to smash the ice with gunfire, then to drive straight across the riverbed. The tanks, acting like icebreakers, pushed the ice aside “with a terrible thundering noise,” a terrifying experience for the poor drivers. The German eastern front in Poland collapsed under the armored onslaught, once again because the Soviet T-34’s broad tracks could cope with the ice and snow far better than any German panzer.

After 1945, the Red Army’s achievements in winter warfare gave it a fearsome reputation in the West. It was not until the Soviet Union’s ill-planned invasion of Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1968—the Warsaw Pact forces lacked maps, food supplies, and fuel—that Western analysts first began to suspect that they might have overestimated the Soviets’ warfighting abilities.

Finally, in the 1980s, the collapse of the Soviet empire was marked by its doomed struggle to control Afghanistan, a terrain that made winter warfare impossible for conventional armies. Then, during the economic collapse in the 1990s, Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s government often proved unable to pay officers and soldiers alike and corruption became institutionalized. Conscripts were frequently on the edge of starvation because their rations were sold off; theft, bullying, and ill discipline became rampant. Spare parts from vehicles, as well as anything from fuel to light bulbs, boots, and especially any cold weather kit, disappeared onto the black market.

Corruption became even worse following Russia’s chaotic invasion of Georgia in 2008. Putin began throwing money at the armed forces. The waste on prestige projects encouraged contractors and generals alike to pad their bank accounts. Little appears to have been done in reassessing military doctrine. The Russian idea of urban warfare had still not evolved from World War II, with their artillery, the “god of war,” smashing everything to rubble. This approach would continue during Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war from 2015.

Yet Putin’s greatest triumph in Russian eyes was the covert seizure of Crimea the year before by infiltrating it with un-uniformed “little green men” from special forces. This was part of Putin’s angry reaction to the Maidan revolution in Kyiv, which forced his ally President Viktor Yanukovych to flee and led to the start of fighting in the Donbas region of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.

Putin in Denial

In February 2022, eight years later, Putin launched his “special military operation” in Ukraine. At the time, the vanguard was told to bring their parade uniforms ready to celebrate victory—one of the greatest examples of military hubris in history. Yet seven disastrous months later, when the Kremlin was finally forced to order a “partial mobilization” of the Russian population, it had to warn those called up that uniforms and equipment were in short supply. They would have to provide their own body armor and even ask their mothers and girlfriends for sanitary pads to use instead of field dressings. The lack of bandages is astonishing, especially now as winter intensifies, since they are vital to keep frost from entering open wounds. Adding to the dangers are mortar rounds hitting frozen ground: unlike soft mud, which absorbs most of the blast, frozen ground causes fragments to ricochet, in sometimes lethal ways.

Putin’s new commander in chief in the south, General Sergei Surovikin, is determined to clamp down on attempts by some conscripts to avoid combat. Many have been resorting to the sabotage of fuel, weapons, and vehicles, to say nothing of self-inflicted wounds and desertion. Yet the Russian army’s long-standing structural problem—its shortage of experienced noncommissioned officers—has also led to a terrible record of maintaining weapons, equipment, and vehicles. These problems will become especially costly in winter with sensitive technology such as drones.

As both sides enter a far more challenging season of fighting, the outcome will largely depend on morale and determination. While Russian troops curse their shortages and lack of hot food, Ukrainian troops are now benefiting from supplies of insulated camouflage suits, tents with stoves, and sleeping bags provided by Canada and the Nordic nations. Putin seems to be in denial about the state of his army and the way that General Winter will favor his opponents. He may also have made another mistake by concentrating his missiles against Ukraine’s energy network and its vulnerable civilian population. They will endure the greatest suffering, but there is little chance that they will break.

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