Sunny weather in southern Ukraine suggests new fighting season has begun

ZAPORIZHZHIA REGION, Ukraine — The armored vehicle, an old Soviet-designed 2S1 self-propelled howitzer, lurched around the corner. Upstairs sat four Ukrainian soldiers in summer uniforms, their feet dangling, a pack of Coca-Cola beside them.

One soldier triumphantly lifted an ice cream cone above his head as he walked past, while another waved a peace sign.

“It’s vanilla,” he said, when he was stopped and questioned a few moments later.

Spring has finally arrived in southern Ukraine. And with temperatures reaching 78 degrees Fahrenheit last weekend, expectations for a long-awaited retaliation against the occupying Russian forces are at full height.

A few months of unusual rainfall had made the ground muddy, sticky and unsuitable for heavy vehicles. But with a recent patch of dry weather, conditions are almost perfect for a much-anticipated counteroffensive, which President Volodymyr Zelensky and others have called on to show Western backers that Ukraine is capable of taking back its territory.

Although there have not yet been any dramatic lightning-bolt movements by Ukrainian troops in the northeastern Kharkiv region in the fall, retaliation is already underway — quietly.

On Thursday, an adviser to Zelenskyi, Mykhailo Podoliak, tried to reset any expectations that Kiev would fire some sort of starting gun to herald the start of the new initiative.

“About retaliation again,” Podoliak tweeted. “1. This is not a ‘single event’ that will begin with the solemn cutting of the red ribbon at a certain hour on a certain day. 2. It is dozens of different actions to destroy the Russian occupation forces in different directions, which It’s happening yesterday, it’s happening today and it will continue tomorrow. 3. Severe destruction of enemy logistics is also retaliation.”

Podoliak’s tweet was an attempt to clarify things after Italian broadcaster RAI quoted him in an interview as saying that retaliation had already been underway for several days.

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In the Zaporizhzhia region, which is expected to be a major focus of Ukrainian forces as they seek to retake the city of Melitopol, the weather has been closely watched in recent weeks.

Pushing south through this vast agricultural region, now filled with bright yellow fields with early summer crops, would allow Ukraine to break the “land bridge” between mainland Russia and illegally annexed Crimea. This could cut off critical logistics supply lines and allow Ukrainian troops to deploy. More attacks.

Nuclear power plant

In Enerhodar

Illegally attached

From Russia

In 2014

Sources: Data controlled by Institute on 24th May.

Study of War, AEI’s Critical Threats Project

Nuclear power plant

In Enerhodar

Illegally attached

In 2014 by Russia

Sources: Data edited by the Institute for the Study of War on 24 May.

AEI’s Critical Threats Project

Nuclear power plant

In Enerhodar

Illegally attached

In 2014 by Russia

Sources: Data controlled by Institute on 24th May.

Study of War, AEI’s Critical Threats Project

According to Deputy Mayor Svetlana Mendrich, such a campaign would push back the front line from places like Orikhe, a once-thriving town of 19,000 that now sits about three miles from Russian lines and has been shelling for months. is facing almost daily attacks from

“We’ve been hearing about this retaliation for so long,” Mendrich, 52, said in an interview. “We just hope that it happens and that it succeeds.”

Orkhio is now largely abandoned, and Mendrich is leading humanitarian aid efforts for the 1,400 or so residents who remain. “We are five kilometers from the front,” he said. “We’ve always been in the line of fire.”

Even far from the front line, in Kiev and the central Ukrainian city of Dnipro, Russian missiles have wreaked havoc over the past month. On Friday, a Russian missile attack destroyed a hospital, killing two people and injuring 30. Earlier in the morning, Kiev was hit by a missile attack – the 13th such attack since the beginning of May.

Talk of a spring invasion has been going on for months. Zielinski and military commanders have said they were awaiting the arrival of more weapons, ammunition and other supplies. Ukrainian forces are also receiving training to use new combat vehicles and other equipment provided by Western countries.

But even if there was enough material, the weather presented a more fundamental obstacle. “It depends on God’s mindset and weather conditions,” as well as the force that can be assembled, Defense Minister Oleksiy Rezinkov said of the counterattack during an interview with The Washington Post earlier this month. I said when asked.

“Water levels during the spring this year were very high — very high,” Reznikov said, adding that groundwater levels on May 1 were 4.7 inches higher than normally expected.

In Zaporizhzhia, the problem here can be described more simply: soil.

Ukraine’s muddy season, known in Ukrainian as “byzdoryzhia” or “roadless,” is an annual fact of life in Zaporizhia. The clay-rich soil that helps make Ukraine an agricultural powerhouse simply doesn’t drain well, resulting in a wet, muddy mess that not only clogs conventional vehicles with tires, but also tanks or 2S1s. Can also push tracked vehicles like howitzers.

Evolution of soil conditions

In southern Ukraine

As spring turns to summer, the once-muddy and impenetrable land in southern Ukraine is consolidating, as seen in infrared images taken by the Copernicus Sentinel satellite.

Source: Copernicus Sentinel

Evolution of soil conditions in southern Ukraine

As spring turns to summer, the once-muddy and impenetrable land in southern Ukraine is consolidating, as seen in infrared images taken by the Copernicus Sentinel satellite.

Source: Copernicus Sentinel

“This is the mud you find in northwest France,” said James Rands, a military expert at the British intelligence firm Janes, pointing to the site of the famous muddy, bloody battles during World War I. “But by all accounts, it’s worse.”

While mud season is only supposed to last a few weeks, this year the weather didn’t cooperate. April was a “very wet month” in Ukraine, said Anbal Baker-Reshev, a University of Maryland researcher who tracks global weather patterns, with unusually low temperatures at the start of the month.

Weather has played a major role in the war in Ukraine since Russia invaded last year.

The winter months in late 2021 and early 2022 were unusually mild, causing the mud to melt earlier than normal. This was preceded by a season of mud, which saw many Russian tanks and other heavy vehicles become stuck in fields or confined to paved roads, where they were easy targets for Ukrainian defenders.

Now, warmer weather provides other benefits, including better tree cover and more daylight hours for soldiers and vehicles.

After a wet April, May has been remarkably dry, with temperatures often in the 70s. The lowest soil moisture levels in Ukraine are now in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, a neighboring region that could also serve as a front in a counterattack, Becker-Reshef said. Some areas are now in the grip of drought.

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Ben Hodges, the former commander of US Army Europe, said that ground conditions were certainly a factor that Ukraine would take into account in planning new offensives. “Is it dry enough to allow the churning and movement of hundreds of heavy, tracked armored vehicles and hundreds of support vehicles?” Hodges asked.

But he also emphasized that this was only one of several factors, including the readiness of Ukraine’s forces and whether their Russian adversaries had been decimated by airstrikes or distracted by prolonged fighting in specific areas such as Bakhmut. was removed so that Ukraine’s next moves could not be predicted. .

“Are Russian commanders sufficiently confused about the timing, method and location of the attacks?” Hodges wrote in an email.

Other experts said ground conditions are no longer the reason for the delay. Ukrainian military expert Oleksiy Melnyk said weather was one of those factors. “But not important.”

In a field in western Zaporizhzhia, about an hour’s drive from Orikhiv, the 1st Tank Battalion conducted offensive exercises with Soviet-made T-64 tanks on Wednesday, plowing through fields on farms and now occupied agricultural fields. Deployed smoke screen to practice clearing lands. The Russians

The temperature had dropped slightly with clouds on the horizon. According to Yuri, a 29-year-old unit commander, the T-64 has a habit of getting stuck in the mud, but the ground was solid enough for regular vehicles, not just tanks.

After the exercise, the soldiers gathered in a nearby house to watch drone footage of their performance over bowls of solenka, a thick soup. Mykhailo, 39, the deputy battalion commander, was not impressed.

“What if this is our field and there are orcs?” He said referring to the Russian soldiers. “What are you going to do? Shoot us?”

“For such a trick, you will be dragged to hell!” he said later.

In a town like Orikhiv, such training cannot be completed quickly. Winters were harsh and there was little opportunity to enjoy warm weather due to near-daily bombardment. Many of the remaining individuals spend 18 to 20 hours underground.

Mendrich, the deputy mayor, now lives and works in the basement of a municipal building where she and other volunteers have built a system in a city to distribute food and provide Wi-Fi, electricity and even hot showers. Established where very few homes have any of this. .

Mendrich and other remaining residents have also taken time to replant some flowers along the town’s main square. “We are maintaining our fighting spirit,” he said.

Isobel Koshev in Kyiv, Ukraine, contributed to this report.

A year into Russia’s war in Ukraine

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