Logistics: The hidden challenge for Putin's military

As Russia’s war in Ukraine enters its third week, it has become increasingly clear that logistics — especially transportation and supply lines — are contributing to Vladimir Putin’s stalled advances.

Behind every army, there is a vast network of supply lines. Each day may require hundreds of thousands of pounds of food alone, not to mention water, ammunition, medical gear and other supplies. And then there’s oil to power the tanks and trucks, which are instrumental in bringing troops as well as more supplies to the frontlines.

None of that is easy in Ukraine in March, when the ground starts to thaw from winter.

“There were already numerous episodes when Russian tanks and other equipment drove into the fields and got stuck,” Ukrainian military analyst Mykola Beleskov told Agence France-Presse. “So the soldiers had to leave the equipment and go on foot. The situation will worsen as the weather warms up and the rains start, it’ll just chain them to the ground.”

A column of Russian military vehicles.
Russian military vehicles near the village of Oktyabrsky, near the Russian-Ukrainian border, on Feb. 26. (Anton Vergun/Tass via Zuma Press)

Rasputitsa, also known as “General Mud” or “Marshal Mud,” is known by military historians for defeating some of the most defiant armies. During Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, French soldiers were unable to effectively retreat on muddy rural roads. More than a century later, during World War II, Adolf Hitler’s tanks and trucks sputtered in waist-deep mud while attempting to advance to Moscow. Dartmouth College professor Jason Lyall tweeted that rasputitsa is one of the “the Four Horsemen of the Ukrainian Army,” along with portable antitank and surface-to-air missiles.

“A lot of the infrastructure in Ukraine, particularly the roads and some of the more rural areas, are not Western roads,” Alyssa Demus, a senior policy analyst at the the global policy think tank RAND Corporation, said.

A German tank stuck in the mud.
A German tank stuck in the mud during the invasion into Russia in 1942. (AP)

“So they’re either dirt roads, or they’re incredibly potholed. It’s important to remind people that when we’re talking about moving heavy infrastructure or heavy machinery over these sorts of long distances, a tank could destroy a well-built western road depending on its weight, tread, and other factors,” she said. “So when you come to a Ukrainian road, that might not necessarily be very flat; it could prove even more challenging for the Russian military.”

Accordingly, the Russian military tends to rely extensively on rail lines, sometimes over massive distances; it is over 5,500 miles to go from Vladivostok in Siberia to St. Petersburg in Russia’s west. And as Ukraine was once part of the Soviet Union, both countries share the same rail gauges, something they do not share with their Western counterparts on the continent.

Russian tanks take part in drills.
Russian tanks take part in drills at a firing range in the Rostov region of southern Russia in January. (AP)

“To those who are in Western Europe this may sound insignificant, but as someone who has been stuck on the Ukrainian-Polish border, where they literally lift the train up and move it to a new gauge rail, it is actually not an insignificant issue,” Demus told Yahoo News. “And so that is sort of helpful on the Russian side of the logistics piece.”

But Demus said that in order to have access to the rail lines in Ukraine, Russian forces would also need to pin down territorial control of major cities. “In order to actually be able to move things via rail, you have to have access to that rail, and with the sort of protracted fighting in and around the Ukrainian-Russian borders, [Russia] won’t necessarily have access to those rail points to bring forces and equipment,” she said.

An armed man near a barricade.
An armed man near a barricade during an air raid alarm in Maidan Square in Kyiv on March 1. (Vadim Ghirda/AP)

And Russia has to navigate these logistics hurdles while battling the surprisingly fierce Ukrainian army on its own turf. Ukrainian soldiers and the armed civilian population are targeting supply trucks and other resources behind the frontlines of the war. “Very real human stories are tied to what seems like strategic moves on a chessboard,” Demus said.

Perhaps the clearest example of Russia’s challenge is the massive military convoy on a path toward the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv — seen on satellite imagery stretching over 40 miles long — that has been inexplicably unmoving for more than a week.

“The large Russian column north west of Kyiv has made little progress in over a week and is suffering continued losses,” the British Defense Ministry said Thursday.

Speaking to the BBC on Tuesday, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said Putin’s forces were “getting more desperate” due to the lack of advancement. “Russia has still not been making its advances. It’s day 13,” he said. “That northern column that we have often talked about is still pretty much stuck, I mean really stuck, so that’s not advancing.”

A satellite view of a Russian armored equipment and ground forces.
A satellite view of a Russian convoy in Ivankiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 27. (©2022 Maxar Technologies/DigitalGlobe/Getty Images)

But it’s not just Ukrainian mud that presents a challenge for Russian military logistics. A severe cold snap could soon stall the Kremlin’s forces as temperatures plunge significantly below freezing.

Analysts told the British newspaper the Times that this could make the invasion harder for the Russians, especially the soldiers in the stalled convoy, which may now consist in part of “40-tonne iron freezers.” Similarly, former British Maj. Kevin Price told the Times: “Minus 20 degrees Celsius will degrade the Russian force, there is no question. It will improve cross-country mobility because there will be less mud, but the Russians are not ready for Arctic conditions.”

He added: “It’s not a decisive factor, but it is a very unwelcome development for Russian commanders.”


What happened this week in Ukraine? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.

Where are Russian forces attacking Ukraine? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.