For a few months each year, Russian leaders have always been able to call upon a formidable military commander who saw off Napoleon and Hitler. General Winter, the most dangerous and annually reliable soldier in Russia's army, specialises in using snow drifts, ice-clad roads and bone-chilling temperatures to freeze invading armies in their tracks. Not once has he let Russia down.
Very soon, President Vladimir Putin will be hoping to give General Winter a new task. Instead of halting an invasion, his mission will be to join Russia's struggle against Ukraine and the West. This, after all, is one crisis that never went away. While the West's attention has been focused on the emergence of a supposed 'Islamic State' in the Middle East, Mr Putin has sponsored the birth of a new country on the continent of Europe.
With a population of about three million, Novorossiya - or 'New Russia' - covers a large slice of the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. This territory lives under the rule of pro-Moscow insurgents, whose weapons, training, commanders and foot soldiers are all provided courtesy of Mr Putin. Like the people of Crimea, who were absorbed into Russia in March, the inhabitants of Novorossiya were unable to vote in Ukraine's parliamentary election yesterday. This contest provided an opportunity for the brave people who faced down snipers' bullets during the revolution in February to begin to remake Ukraine as a genuine European democracy.
But don't be reassured by the sight of Ukrainians queuing peaceably to vote yesterday. Mr Putin still has the upper hand in this struggle. Thus far, he has remained inflexible in the face of American and European sanctions; even the destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 by his favoured rebels made no difference.
There was only one moment when it looked as if his plans might unravel. Back in August, a determined Ukrainian military offensive began to seize ground from the insurgents. For a few weeks, it looked as if Mr Poroshenko might recapture the Donbass. Then Mr Putin sent thousands of Russian combat troops into Ukraine, backed by tanks and artillery. This shadowy invasion stopped the Ukrainian advance and compelled Mr Poroshenko to sign the Minsk agreement on September 5.
In effect, that deal froze the situation on the ground and allowed the birth of Novorossiya. The old Soviet Union has a small family of unrecognised statelets - South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, and Transdniestria in Moldova.
Novorossiya is the newest and by far the most important member of this club. Its capital, Donetsk, is a city of one million people that co-hosted the European Football Championships in 2012. This new statelet possesses the industrial heartland of Ukraine, most of the country's coal reserves and 7pc of its total population. Without this region, Ukraine is a mutilated state, deprived of its vital economic base.
Mr Poroshenko has tried and failed to retake the lost territory by force. He has now vested all hope in the Minsk agreement. In theory, this deal should restore Ukraine's control with Russia, thereby stopping the flow of weapons, troops and tanks. In addition, all "illegal armed groups" - for which read the pro-Russian rebels - are supposed to "withdraw".
Mr Poroshenko hopes the pressure of Western sanctions will gradually wear down Mr Putin and force Russia to implement the deal. And that is where General Winter comes in. Back in June, Mr Putin stopped supplying gas to Ukraine. At the time, this meant little, since Ukraine and the rest of Europe can do without Russian energy supplies in the summer.
As winter sets in, however, the balance reverses and the EU comes to rely on Russia for a quarter of its gas. Of this, about half reaches the EU via pipelines running across Ukraine.
In theory, Mr Putin could empty those pipelines and leave particularly vulnerable EU countries such as Hungary and Slovakia shivering through the winter. In the coming months, this venerable member of Russia's armoury will be pressed into service once again. (© Daily Telegraph, London)