Strategic Pause: Revisiting the Russia-Ukraine Winter War Game

“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Winston Churchill

There comes a time in a prolonged and extended battle when the attacking force is unable to make gains and its leading forces reach a point where overextended logistics support or the absence of reserves no longer makes it practical to continue to push on with the tempo of operations. In military parlance that is termed as ‘culminating point’, necessitating an operational pause for commanders to halt, break, recoup, regroup, reinforce and then press on.

In a war, which comprises a number of battles, this pause could be longer – owing to changed political situations, operational imperatives, economic limitations or even environmental conditions like weather, sea state, etc. This is called a strategic pause.

The dictionary of Military and Associated terms defines ‘culminating point’ as: “The point at which a force no longer has the capability to continue its form of operations, offense or defense. a. In the offense, the point at which effectively continuing the attack is no longer possible and the force must consider reverting to a defensive posture or attempting an operational pause. b. In the defense, the point at which effective counteroffensive action is no longer possible.”

Strategic pause finds no formal definition in any dictionary but with reference to business, as Terry Betker defines it succinctly: “A pause in the plan can appear to be a step backward when it may be a step sideways, allowing the family and business to position itself for the next step forward.” Much the same in a war.

Napoleon’s Withdrawal

When Napoleon led a Grande Armee of 650,000 across the Nieman river into Russia against barely 200,000 troops of Tsar Alexander I, little did he know that just 100,000 would survive the cold, barren, and bitter Russian winter. Napoleon intended to teach Alexander a lesson in a quick offensive that would establish his supremacy over Russia and East Europe. The offensive commenced on June 24, 1812 and in three days the French had captured Vilna. But the Tsar’s army resorted to a policy of ‘scorched earth’, destroying crops and forage as it retreated without a fight through August and September till the very gates of Moscow.

By the time the Grande Armee reached Moscow, the winter was too severe forcing a strategic pause in the campaign – Napoleon had to decide whether to continue to stay through the bitter winter or return all the way back and save whatever was left of his Armee. Napoleon had thundered, “The sword is now drawn. They [the Russian Army] must be pushed back into their ice, so that for the next 25 years they no longer come to busy themselves with the affairs of civilized Europe.” He was wrong. He withdrew, humiliated and barely in time to save his kingdom and face. The strategic pause brought about by the weather was used by the Tsar to his advantage.

Hitler’s Freeze

Nearly 129 years later, almost to the day, on June 22, 1942, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, a grand plan to capture Russia and subdue the Communists whom Hitler considered as natural ideological enemies. The German Army comprising about 3 million troops organized in 150 Divisions, 600,000 horses, 3,500 tanks, 2,500 aircraft and around 7,000 artillery pieces, along with 30 divisions of Finnish and Romanian troops lined up along the Soviet border. Convinced that the German Army would celebrate Christmas in Moscow, the German offensive was divided into three prongs across an 1800-mile-long front.

Army Group North was to advance through the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia and capture Leningrad. Army Group Centre was to capture Minsk and Smolensk before marching on the Soviet capital Moscow, whilst Army Group South was to capture the economic resources in the industrial south of Russia and Ukraine. By end July, Army Group North had reached Leningrad, Army Group Centre was closing in on Moscow and Army Group South was making slow but steady progress towards Kiev. But as Kiev held out, in a decision that would cost Hitler dearly, he ordered Army Group Centre to reinforce the other two groups.

By the time he turned his attention back to Moscow, codenamed Operation Typhoon, the winter had set in and a dogged Soviet resistance forced the Germans to give up the capture of Russia. Once again, weather has forced a strategic pause in the campaign. Not one to give up, Hitler again launched another offensive in the summer of 1942 against Stalingrad with his crack 6th Army led by General von Paulus. The Russian ‘scorched earth’ and ‘fighting retreat’ policy drew in the German Army once again into the harsh winter of 1942 and the entire 6th Army under von Paulus surrendered. Once again weather afforded a strategic pause in the campaign to Stalin and Hitler miscalculated. In hindsight, it was the failure in the Russian campaign that was the beginning of the end of the Third Reich.

Taking Note of the Chinese Calculation

China’s war on India in 1962 is another example to take a note of. Even Mao Zedong realized that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was overstretched in the war with India across the Himalayas in 1962, and, twisted what would have been a disaster maintaining such a large army through the harsh winter on the Tibetan plateau, to victory by consolidating gains and unilaterally withdrawing to his version of the McMahon line. At that point Chinese logistics chain stretched to almost 2000 kms through treacherous terrain and altitudes of 4-5000m. A strategic pause through the winter, if afforded to the Indian Army, would have been a military disaster for China as foreign support (Nehru had sought help from the USA), use of Air Force and freshly trained soldiers from the western India would have made it impossible to maintain such an overstretched and logistically imbalanced force across the Himalayas once the snows had melted on the passes.

Strategic Retreat in Ukraine

In the Ukraine war, Russia initially miscalculated Ukraine’s capacity to wage war and grossly underestimated the role of NATO in supporting the Ukrainian cause. As a result, the initial euphoria of territorial successes wore out once NATO began to supply weapons like the deadly Stinger which kept helicopters off the skies, NLAWS & Javelin ATGMs which halted the Russian mechanized forces ably supported by indigenous as well as highly efficient weaponized drones and HIMARS, M-777, M-109 and Caesar guns and MLRS artillery systems which paralyzed the Russian offensive forces.

Woefully short of trained manpower and overstretched for logistics, the Russian Army changed its military strategy to one of consolidation and began to “firm in” astride the Dnieper River after occupying about 20 percent of Ukrainian territory. The campaign strategy, once again, fell back on creating time and space for a ‘strategic pause”, waiting for winter to come to its rescue. Putin had read his history lesson well. In integrating Donbas and “firming in”, Putin has already achieved his aim of creating a buffer between Russia and a NATO supported Ukraine, bought time for almost 300,000 fresh troops to be inducted next summer, purchased weapons like drones and missiles from Iran, refurbished his civil-military industrial complex and begun to relocate and redeploy forces from other theaters of war. The continued sporadic bombardment of the Ukrainian infrastructure, power and factories is a ‘strategic retreat’ akin to the strategy that Stalin adopted against Hitler in 1942. This ensures that the Ukrainian Army is bogged down in the marshy snows, the Ukrainian nation remains in a state of disequilibrium and the severe winter coupled with war breaks the back of the Ukrainian people’s resistance and will to fight through another summer.

The USA and NATO failed to deny this vital strategic pause to Russia. Once again, winter has come to Russia’s rescue. If history is to be believed, the war is far from over.