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

The Ukrainian winter proved a vital ally for defending forces — but drier terrain still poses risks

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A convoy of Russian armoured vehicles near Mariupol in the Donetsk region. Photo: Reuters/Alexander Ermochenko

A convoy of Russian armoured vehicles near Mariupol in the Donetsk region. Photo: Reuters/Alexander Ermochenko

An injured Ukrainian soldier inside the Azovstal Steel Works in Mariupol, Ukraine, in a picture taken on May 10 by Dmytro Orest Kozatskyi, who is now a prisoner of the Russians

An injured Ukrainian soldier inside the Azovstal Steel Works in Mariupol, Ukraine, in a picture taken on May 10 by Dmytro Orest Kozatskyi, who is now a prisoner of the Russians

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A convoy of Russian armoured vehicles near Mariupol in the Donetsk region. Photo: Reuters/Alexander Ermochenko

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, confining ill-fated Russian columns to narrow roads where they were sitting ducks for the Ukrainian gunners.

Now, it is a different story.

In the fields of Donbas, the earth is being dried by a friendly late spring sun and the fresh green shoots of young crops are appearing, even where rocket strikes have left black marks on the steppe.

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

South-west of Izyum, the Ukrainian defenders have cut new trenches into the rich steppe sod as they prepare a defence in depth to counter the grinding Russian offensive here.

The trenches reveal the same cross-section of local geology familiar from the winter war — but now, the fertile black topsoil is baked dry and the ochre clay beneath it is rock-hard.

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

Tanks and other vehicles that were confined to tarmac roads should now be able to roam free, making the most of their mobility and the range of their cannon on the undulating, open fields of the Donbas. Infantry can walk and run without their boots becoming stuck in a sucking quagmire.

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But as the seasons have turned, so has the tide of the war.

While Russia’s grand offensive in Donbas has made painfully slow progress, Ukraine has made significant advances with its own counter-offensive around Kharkiv.

As Ukrainian confidence grows, there is an unspoken expectation — perhaps premature, perhaps too optimistic — that it could be Ukrainian tanks, not Russian ones, raising dust as they sweep across the plains this summer.

There are a number of factors that could prove equally challenging for both Russian and Ukrainian troops hoping to exploit the good weather, however.

First, those vast, undulating fields are not as friendly as they look. Well-tended agriculture generally means no mines, while fallow fields mean watch your step. But quite often freshly ploughed ground and skull-and-crossbones warning signs confusingly overlap.

The pro-Ukrainian messaging app Telegram recently posted a video of two Russian tanks purportedly hitting landmines. Modern anti-tank weapons such as Javelin missiles remain a deadly threat to armour in the open, and both sides have drones overhead, making it difficult to achieve any element of surprise.

Second, a blitzkrieg needs a breakthrough. But if behind the frontline your tanks find another line, and then another, that may be difficult to achieve. It does not betray military secrets to report that the Ukrainians have dug in deeply in Donbas. If the Russians do the same, the Ukrainians may run into similar difficulty.

But most importantly, the summer campaign so far has been dominated by one weapon — and it is not the main battle tank.

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An injured Ukrainian soldier inside the Azovstal Steel Works in Mariupol, Ukraine, in a picture taken on May 10 by Dmytro Orest Kozatskyi, who is now a prisoner of the Russians

An injured Ukrainian soldier inside the Azovstal Steel Works in Mariupol, Ukraine, in a picture taken on May 10 by Dmytro Orest Kozatskyi, who is now a prisoner of the Russians

An injured Ukrainian soldier inside the Azovstal Steel Works in Mariupol, Ukraine, in a picture taken on May 10 by Dmytro Orest Kozatskyi, who is now a prisoner of the Russians

Ukrainian-held Donbas is surrounded on three sides. From almost anywhere in this vast salient, 50 miles across at its mouth, you can hear the constant drumming of the guns. This is now an artillery war. Whoever can throw more shells and rockets further, 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 calls he has experienced where he may very nearly have died.

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

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

That soldier, who is fighting to contain the Russian offensives around Izyum, seemed quite confident. Russian attacks over the past month have been preceded by intense bombardments, only for the infantry and armour to quit the attack the moment they met serious resistance, he said.

Further south in the Donbas salient, however, locals are confused and nervous.

“It is getting closer,” said one civilian woman in the town of Druzhkivka. “Every night you can hear it has got a bit closer.”

It will be a long, hot summer until the rains soften the ground again.

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022]


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