The return of 'rasputitsa' and what it means for Russia's war in Ukraine

For centuries, Russia has depended on its harsh winter weather to help turn back invaders. But as summer turns to fall in Ukraine, it might be Russian forces who find themselves on the losing side of the “rasputitsa” — the wet, muddy period caused by melting snow in the spring and heavy rains in autumn.

The rasputitsa, also known as “General Mud” or “Marshal Mud,” is well-known to military historians. 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. Jason Lyall, a professor of government at Dartmouth, said toward the beginning of the invasion that rasputitsa is one of the “the Four Horsemen of the Ukrainian Army,” alongside portable anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles.

Ukrainian Military Forces
Ukrainian Military Forces conduct live-fire exercises near Kharkiv, on Feb. 10, 2022. (Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images)

When the Kremlin began its brutal invasion in February, the issue of how rasputitsa would affect the invading Russian army’s battle plans was a hot topic. Alyssa Demus, a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corp., told Yahoo News in March that the Russian military could find navigating Ukrainian roads more challenging than they had anticipated.

“They’re either dirt roads, or they’re incredibly potholed,” Demus said about Ukraine’s roads. “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.”

And plenty of pictures circulated on social media of abandoned Russian tanks in the six months of the invasion. According to the open source intelligence organization Oryx, 315 tanks have been abandoned so far — although, in some cases, the cause of their abandonment remains unknown.

But what about when rasputitsa arrives in the fall? Yahoo News spoke with military strategist and retired Australian Army Maj. Gen. Mick Ryan and analysts at Janes, a defense intelligence provider, about the looming threat of rasputita’s arrival.

DPR servicemen are seen in a tank to target enemy positions located near the city of Krasnohorivka, at Novoselovka-2 village of Yasinovatsky district, Donetsk Oblast of Ukraine on 13, 2022. (Leon Klein/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Soldiers of the Donetsk People's Republic target enemy positions near Krasnohorivka, Ukraine. (Leon Klein/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“I don't think it will have the same impact in the autumn as it would in the spring,” Ryan said. “Having looked at the climate there, it appears — particularly in Ukraine, where spring [sees] melting snow — it has a larger impact than, say, in autumn. I don’t think it’s as likely in the autumn, as it might have been in the spring.”

A Janes analyst told Yahoo News that fall weather would likely “slow down the pace of the war” but they agreed that it would not have the same “dramatic effect it did last spring.”

“Right now, the Russians and Ukrainians are likely competing for territory in the belief that any ground they take before the end of summer will be safe from recapture throughout the winter as the war bogs down further,” the Janes analyst said.

“Once autumn arrives, life for infantry will get harder, last-mile resupply will become more difficult in the more rural fronts and artillery will find it harder to move around to employ ‘shoot and scoot’ tactics. This will make the use of artillery more dangerous for both sides.”

Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces' member
A Ukrainian soldier stands on a damaged Russian tank on the outskirts of the village of Nova Basan. (Narciso Contreras/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

With regard to vehicles becoming stuck, analysts said that both Ukrainian and Russian forces will be more wary about driving vehicles off-road and choose to stay still rather than risk losing vehicles to the mud.

But with just weeks to go before the fall, is either side preparing for rasputitsa? Ryan says they must be, as they have “been fighting and operating here for hundreds and hundreds of years.”

“Before trucks, there were horse-drawn carts and horses and people and they all have a problem with mud,” he added, “It doesn't mean it’s easy, but they have ways of dealing with it.”