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Ukrainian troops prepare to switch tactics in the winter

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This story incorrectly says that Fred Kagan is with the Institute for the Study of War. Kagan is head of the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project, which works with the ISW jointly on Ukraine updates.]

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Much of the fighting in Ukraine has been defined by deadly games of hide and seek. Troops hide under the cover of trees from reconnaissance drones that signal to the other side where to fire. Both Ukraine and Russia have conducted the war this way on the flat terrain throughout the country's south and east. But as NPR's Nathan Rott reports, the coming winter is forcing both sides to change tactics.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: For most of the last eight months, this is what the fighting has looked like near Ukraine's frontlines. A group of Ukrainian soldiers, part of a territorial defense unit that calls itself the Legendary Battalion, gathers at the back of a running pickup in a grove of roadside trees under the cover of yellowing leaves. Three long, gray rockets rest in the truck bed. Badger, a nickname, screws little silver cones to the top of each.

What are these guys?

BADGER: Fire show.

ROTT: Fire show?

BADGER: (Laughter).

ROTT: Percussion caps in place, the rockets are lifted and loaded into a launching platform that's been welded to the back of another camouflage pickup nestled even further under the trees.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLIDING)

ROTT: A soldier using the nom de guerre Playboy is directing this strike.

What are you guys targeting right now?

PLAYBOY: Right now it's a tree line where are sitting Russian troops.

ROTT: A tree line with Russian troops about 8 kilometers to the south of where we are now.

PLAYBOY: We have guys in this village, and they're looking at everything. And they give us the target.

ROTT: Intelligence, eyes and ears on the ground, informing the Ukrainians where to attack.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #1: (Non-English language spoken).

ROTT: Another soldier walks up and explains that we're about to drive even closer to the front line, well within the range of Russian artillery, to fire. So once they launched these rockets, we need to get back in our car and leave the area immediately before the Russians can fire back. A few minutes later, we park along a narrow, two-lane road and get out next to a field of dead black sunflowers. Soldiers climb into the bed of the truck 100 yards ahead and adjust the launcher. A pause and...

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKET LAUNCHING)

ROTT: Songbirds fly away as the rockets jet south in a plume of smoke.

We're out of here.

We get in our vehicle and drive quickly out of artillery range to the north. This long-distance game of cat and mouse could soon shift because winter is starting, and the conditions for this kind of fighting are changing. At a military base in the city of Kryvyi Rih, Playboy explains how winter will make this type of fighting much more difficult to conduct.

PLAYBOY: Because you don't have nothing to hide. And you stay in the open space, and it's so much easier to find you.

ROTT: Artillery and vehicle tracks will be easier to see in the snow. Leafless trees will offer less cover.

PLAYBOY: Effectively, war in the winter depends on effective reconnaissance and effective artillery. Who will be more effective in this part? That one will be much better in the battlefield.

ROTT: This is something leadership of Ukraine's armed forces is stressing as the winter months approach. At a training facility outside of the city of Dnipro in south-central Ukraine, Master Sergeant Oleksandr Honchurak, a member of Ukraine's infantry, says winter requires much more stealth.

OLEKSANDR HONCHARUK: (Non-English language spoken).

ROTT: "You have to move with more secrecy, a bit faster," he says. "You have to move with your eyes open, more work with drones, more observing, more planning." Winter warfare is not new to Russia and Ukraine. They've been fighting in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine since 2014. Frederick Kagan with the Institute for the Study of War, a D.C.-based think tank, says that's important for Ukraine supporters, namely NATO and the U.S., to remember, especially, he says, as some military analysts predict a slowdown in fighting as temperatures drop.

FREDERICK KAGAN: We need to get that model out of our heads because that's not historically the way war in this part of the world works.

ROTT: Winter typically favors the aggressor. And Kagan says right now that's Ukraine.

KAGAN: I do think that there will be another window for Ukrainian mechanized counteroffensive operations if there is a hard freeze that solidifies the ground.

ROTT: Counteroffensives that will continue to be dependent on Western aid, weapons and cold-\weather gear. At front-line areas in the country's south, east and windswept north, Ukrainian soldiers are making their own preparations, stocking up on firewood to be stored in deep trenches they've carved into the earth. Dmytro, with the Kharkiv region territorial defense, says this is a position they've taken back from Russia. So they're preparing in case they decide to return.

DMYTRO: (Through interpreter) So that's the first line of defense. So if any other tries new attacks here, come, that's the first line that we can spot them and protect.

ROTT: The wind gusts, and a soldier beckons us to join him in a nearby trench.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #2: (Non-English language spoken).

ROTT: Wood planks are laid over the mud to keep feet clean. The wind inside the trench is a little less cutting, far more so in a hut they've built underground.

It's a lot nicer in here.

Oleh and Ihor, two territorial defenders who up until eight months ago worked as a butcher and an electrician respectively, welcome us with coffee.

How are you feeling about the upcoming winter?

OLEH: (Through interpreter) A stove here, a stove there. You know, everywhere is warm. I will show you around, and you'll see it's no problem at all.

ROTT: Oleh shows off cold-weather gear, coveralls and coats, sleeping bags and blankets donated to the territorial defense. A bench in the hut is covered in grapes and pears given to them by local farmers. They both light cigarettes, and I ask if they think winter helps them or Russia.

OLEH AND IHOR: (Through interpreter) It's our land. It's our motherland. It helps us.

ROTT: At least, that's their hope. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Kherson region, Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 15, 2022 at 11:00 PM CST
This story incorrectly says that Fred Kagan is with the Institute for the Study of War. Kagan is head of the American Enterprise Institute's Critical Threats Project, which works with the ISW jointly on Ukraine updates.
Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.
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