Into the Roadless Land
The Russian invasion of Ukraine
27th May 2022
Where armies, weapons, and everything else has failed, the elements and the land have always come to the aid of Russia in times of peril. We have been recently reminded of the harshness of winter and a quality (or lack thereof) of its soil: rasputitsa (“season of no roads” or “roadlessness,” quite literally), when rains in autumn and melting snow in spring turn the land into impassable mud swamps.
Rasputitsa had been forgotten for a long time, since the failed attempt by Hitler’s armies to occupy Moscow in 1941.
The scale of the country with its current borders makes it impossible to occupy by any invading force. Then, of course, there is the climate. Much has been made of winter, and for plenty of reason. No other season really matters.
Yet winter has not always affected adversely war plans against Russia. During a push to break through the Kessel (“cauldron” in German, the defense perimeter where Germany’s Sixth Army was confined) at Stalingrad, Gen. Friedrich Paulus took advantage of the most brutal of seasons. “As early winter darkness intruded, the rejuvenated Germans raced off on an ice-coated road,” writes William Craig in Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad.
More importantly, notwithstanding how “General Winter” is represented in the popular imagination, “it should be noted that the main body of Napoleon’s Grand Armée, initially at least 378,000 strong, diminished by half during the first eight weeks of his invasion—before the major battle of the campaign,” at Borodino on Sept. 7, 1812, we are reminded by Allen F. Chew, in his seminal and now forgotten work, Fighting the Russians in Winter: Three Case Studies (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 1981). As Chew also points out, Napoleon’s retreat after “his uncontested and self-defeating occupation of Moscow” began on October 19, 1812, “before the first severe frosts later that month and the first snow on 5 November.”
Chew also indicates that Hitler’s plans also miscarried before the onset of severe winter weather.
As for rasputitsa, the Russians got a taste of it in Ukraine, with tanks sinking in the mud up their turrets, according to some dispatches.
Can mud stop an army? For a while, at least. As rasputitsa season began in Russia and Ukraine, analysts hurried to dig up historical precedents, the most famous of which was Novgorod in the 13th century. The Russian city, a famous trading center at the time, escaped destruction by the Mongols in 1238 when an early spring “transformed the routes to Novgorod into a muddy bog,” says Timothy May, in The Mongol Empire: A Historical Encyclopedia.
It may be true that the land has given way beneath the feet of Russian soldiers and the track of tanks invading Ukraine. Yet it seems unlikely that mud, swamps, winter, can hinder an army’s advance but most likely will not be the single cause for its failure (or success). As May says in The Mongol Empire, Prince Alexander “saw the wisdom” in voluntary submission and “avoided an attack.” He knew that despite the “reprieve” granted by rasputitsa, “there was little question that the Mongols could have destroyed the great city the following winter.”
The roadless mud that shielded Russia against invaders in the past has now trapped it. The bigger question is now how Russia, mired in Ukraine and bleeding, is going to respond. As political scientist John Mearsheimer has warned about great powers reacting to failure, they have a tendency to up the ante with massive destruction. With Russia headed to what looks like defeat, the question is how much damage President Vladimir Putin is ready to unleash on Ukraine and to his own country.