Monday briefing: How the weather could sway the outcome of the war

In today’s newsletter: Power and water supplies are already compromised. Now Ukraine will be more dependent on support from the west than ever

Good morning. As winter arrives in Ukraine, sleet and snow will become a daily fact of life. Depending on the severity of the weather, the ground will become impassably muddy, or freeze over. Civilians in parts of the country will be left without power, heating or water as a result of Russian attacks on infrastructure, and could face frostbite, hypothermia and pneumonia. Temperatures will get as low as -20C.

While the months ahead look grim, the question of how these drastically changing conditions will impact the progress of the war is more complicated. For today’s newsletter, I spoke to Julian Borger, reporting for the Guardian from Kyiv, about how both sides will hope to use the circumstances to their advantage – and how the prospects for diplomacy could be shaped by the facts on the ground. Here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. China | Hundreds of demonstrators and police have clashed in Shanghai as protests over China’s stringent Covid restrictions flared for a third day and spread to several cities. The BBC said its accredited reporter Ed Lawrence was beaten when he was detained by police in Shanghai for several hours.

  2. NHS | Brexit has worsened the UK’s acute shortage of doctors in key areas of care and led to more than 4,000 European doctors choosing not to work in the NHS, new research reveals. The NHS in England alone has vacancies for 10,582 physicians.

  3. Labour | Keir Starmer has categorically ruled out the return of free movement between Britain and the EU if he were to become prime minister, despite supporting the policy three years ago.

  4. Transport | One of the north of England’s main railway companies, the TransPennine Express, has been using an “outrageous” legal loophole to significantly underreport cancellations. Trains preemptively cancelled up to 10pm the night before are not included in official statistics, turning a rate of 20-30% to reported figures as low as 5.6%.

  5. Television | Former health secretary Matt Hancock finished third on I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!, with retired footballer Jill Scott the eventual winner. Hancock, who lost the Tory whip over his appearance, was left with a toad sitting on his head at the end of the final challenge, “Flood Your Face”.

In depth: ‘Winter will bring fairly heavy attrition with death and illness’

Ukrainian soldiers on patrol outside Kherson after Russian troops retreat from the city.
Ukrainian soldiers on patrol outside Kherson after Russian troops retreat from the city. Photograph: Roman Pilipey/EPA


The situation today: ‘stop-go phases to the conflict’

To date, the Pentagon estimates that around 100,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded during the war, and about the same number of Ukrainian troops. Around 40,000 civilians are also thought to have died. That devastating toll continues to grow, but “there are real stop-go phases to the conflict now”, Julian Borger said.

While Ukrainian troops have been in the ascendancy for some time, “after the Russians made the decision to abandon Kherson and regroup on the left bank of the river Dnipro, we are in a slower phase”.

If Ukraine is to continue its counter-offensive in the south, its forces could attempt to advance in neighbouring Zaporizhzhia oblast, where it already holds the left bank of the Dnipro. “Zaporizhzhia may be the next focus. But the pace of the conflict isn’t by any means uniform,” Julian said. And, as weather worsens, what happens next may be decided in part by forces beyond the control of either side.


The front: will the ground be muddy or frozen?

Biden administration officials expect the winter months to bring “a slowdown in military advances on both sides” that could last as long as six months, the New York Times reported earlier this month – though that is not a universal view. In a 10 November assessment, the respected US thinktank the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said that it “does not assess the fighting in Ukraine will halt or enter a stalemate due to winter weather, despite faulty western assumptions”. The ISW says it expects that “well-supplied Ukrainian forces are unlikely to halt their counteroffensives due to the arrival of winter weather”.

In the short term, the ISW said on Saturday, the pace of operations has slowed in recent days because of bad weather but is likely to accelerate as the ground freezes because of a forecast temperature drop this week. To a large extent, the nature of the conflict on the front lines will continue to depend on the severity of the weather. “If it’s really boggy, you can’t go anywhere with armour,” Julian said. “That was the thinking behind the original invasion – Russia went in February at one of the coldest points because of worries about what muddy terrain would mean north of Kyiv.”

But while frozen ground would make equipment more manoeuvrable for both sides, very cold weather would also be punishing for poorly supplied and inexperienced Russian troops. “Nothing could be worse than being a Russian conscript sent to the front,” Julian said. “We’ve seen footage of them camping outside, in very thin tents – it’s miserable. And you would imagine winter will bring fairly heavy attrition with death and illness.”


Russia’s response: ‘freeze Ukraine to death’

If there is a slowdown at the front, Russia will seek to use the pause to mobilise those 300,000 conscripts, whatever the cost, and hope to bring into play the Iranian missiles that they have ordered to replenish their depleted stocks. “We don’t know if those are in Russia yet,” Julian said.

The other part of their strategy appears to be “to freeze Ukraine to death”, Julian said. Russia is attacking Ukrainian energy infrastructure and may intensify its assault on the country’s water supply, with both power and water out in 15 regions including Kyiv last week. Nato countries are stepping up the delivery of power transformers and electricity generators in response.

On Thursday, Julian wrote, 70% of Kyiv was without power, and “there was water everywhere, but very little to drink”. The severity of that approach is also apparent in Kherson, as reported in this piece by Lorenzo Tondo and Isobel Khoshiw: they write that civilians are gathering firewood but have been warned not to head into the woods without consulting the military “because Russian troops may have left behind mines, tripwires and unexploded shells”. But, they add: “With the price of firewood rising, many have no choice but to take the risk. If a mine doesn’t kill them, the cold might.”


Ukraine’s response: press advantage, maintain morale

Ukrainian children play at an abandoned checkpoint in Kherson, southern Ukraine, Wednesday 23 November 2022.
Ukrainian children play at an abandoned checkpoint in Kherson, southern Ukraine, on 23 November. Photograph: Bernat Armangué/AP

Ukraine wants to maintain the momentum of its recent battlefield successes for as long as it can. The head of Ukraine’s national security and defence council, Oleksiy Danilov, was “absolutely insistent that the weather isn’t an issue and they will press on”, Julian said of a conversation with the official last week.

Ukraine may be less hampered by the winter because its supply lines are shorter than Russia’s. If there is a pause, “that will arguably allow them to regroup and re-arm faster than the Russians if they can keep the flows of equipment coming from the west”, Julian said – pointing in particular to air defence systems needed to blunt Russian attacks on infrastructure. Western analysts also expect an increase in sabotage operations, and even targeted assassinations, behind Russian lines.

The other key question for Ukrainians is whether widespread opposition to a negotiated peace will persist. “The stories we’re writing are not about smiley, happy people defying Putin,” Julian said. “But it is almost impossible to imagine an upswell in demand for some kind of peace deal with territory given away. The kind of punishment meted out by the Russians will be miserable, but they know who to blame.” As one Kyiv resident told him last week: “Do you remember the siege of Leningrad? They lived through that and we can live through this. We can live through anything.”


Will there be new pressure for talks?

Earlier this month, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, said the winter would present a “a window of opportunity for negotiations” – and while he later walked those remarks back, “it shows that that view is out there in Washington”, Julian said. “The Ukrainians very vehemently reject that.”

In an analysis published by the thinktank Rusi last week, Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds wrote that while some western allies were pressurising Kyiv to consider negotiating a truce, that would be “tactically advantageous for Russia in stabilising its control over the occupied territories” and was unlikely to end Russia’s ambition of subjugating Ukraine.

Even if Milley’s remarks do not represent the view of the Biden administration at the moment, the Republican party’s control of the House of Representatives after the midterm elections may change the calculus, Julian said. “Biden is getting a lot of aid out of the door during this lame duck session. I think the balance of views is that those in the Republican party who would end support are not dominant, but there is a question mark. At the moment, the single biggest worry for Ukraine’s ability to wage this war is the politics in Washington.”

What else we’ve been reading

  • Bethan McKernan spoke to entrepreneur Rasha Khouri and Palestinian chef Fadi Kattan about their new restaurant, Akub, which focuses on bringing the essence of Palestinian food to London. “That’s really what I want this to be,” says Khouri, “a celebration of the nuances of Palestinian food and cooking and heritage.” Nimo

  • Claire Armitstead’s piece for the Observer about the contested present and surprising history of pronouns is a fascinating, vital account of how a “grammatical convenience” became “so much more than that”. Archie

  • It’s been a particularly gruelling few years for many shops: Brexit, a pandemic and two recessions. Killian Fox’s interview with photographer Martin Amis, who has been documenting the decline in his native Kent, is a brilliant, albeit somber, look at what we are fast losing. Nimo

  • Nesrine Malik has a smart piece on the risks of Elon Musk’s free speech absolutism to Twitter’s business model: it’s not exactly that you are the product, she writes, but “the regulation of your speech is the product. If a platform becomes too toxic, then it is useless for anyone except those who want an extremist ghetto of agitators.” Archie

  • The lost city of Atlantis is one of the most enduring ancient myths – Robin McKie takes a look at how Netflix’s latest hit Ancient Apocalypse uses this story to propagate dangerous theories of “race science”. Nimo

World Cup

A late equaliser from Niclas Füllkrug salvaged a 1-1 draw for Germany against Spain and kept German hopes of qualification for the next round alive. Morocco beat Belgium, 2-0, in a stunning and deserved upset after substitutes Abdelhamid Sabiri and Zakaria Aboukhlal scored late goals. Keysher Fuller’s goal secured Costa Rica a 1-0 victory against Japan, and Croatia beat Canada 4-1, ending the underdogs’ hopes of qualification despite a first ever goal at the World Cup, from star player Alphonso Davies.


For all the latest on Qatar, from the scandal to the scores, sign up to Football Daily – our free, sometimes funny, newsletter.

Other sport

Rugby union | Eddie Jones is poised to learn his fate as the England head coach in the next fortnight with the Rugby Football Union conducting a review into the “really disappointing” autumn campaign, stating that results have not been good enough. England have just five wins from 12 games this year.

The front pages

Guardian front page, 28 November 2022

The Guardian’s Monday morning splash is “The price of Brexit: 4,000 fewer European doctors work in NHS”. The Times has “Army to rescue strike-hit NHS” while the i says “Sunak losing control as Tory rebellions grow”. As ever, the Express is keen to talk up Tory efforts: “Radical new plan to boost NHS and save lives”. The Daily Mail reports on “Fury over Starmer class war on private schools” saying the idea of putting VAT on school fees has appalled Tory MPs. “Chinese protesters call for Xi to resign” – that’s the Telegraph while the Financial Times has “China rocked by protests as anger spreads over zero-Covid lockdowns”. Today’s Metro calls it the “Great brawl of China”. “Now get him out of here” says the Mirror, with an arrow pointing to a picture of the Palace of Westminster. The “him” is Matt Hancock, who it says “left the jungle a loser last night”. The Sun has “I’m a celeb … now get me out of politics”. It says the disgraced Covid health secretary has been in “secret talks” about a future in showbiz.

Today in Focus

Awaab Ishak
Awaab Ishak, who died of mould in his home. Photograph: Family handout/PA

How dangerous is it to live in a damp, mouldy home?

The death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak from exposure to mould has shown the consequences of uninhabitable homes. But how many people are living in similarly unhealthy conditions and what can be done to protect their health?

Cartoon of the day | Edith Pritchett

Edith Pritchett / The Guardian
Edith Pritchett / The Guardian Illustration: Edith Pritchett/The Guardian

Sign up for Inside Saturday to see more of Edith Pritchett’s cartoons, the best Saturday magazine content and an exclusive look behind the scenes

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad.

The ruined city of Gedi in 1945, at the time Karisa Ndurya would have been excavating.
The ruined city of Gedi in 1945, at the time Karisa Ndurya would have been excavating. Photograph: National Archives

In the early 20th century, European archeologists relied on the work of teams of Kenyan excavators to find ancient monuments during archeological digs. The white scholars would then write books on these digs, taking sole credit without mentioning the dozens of native people whose expert local knowledge about the ancient sites had led to the discoveries. It was a common colonial practice to “forget” the crucial contributions of Africans to uncovering their own history.

To rectify this, exhibitions which are due to take place in museums in Mombasa and London, are showing unseen photographs of previously nameless and faceless people that place them at these digs. The photographs are a key part of correcting historical records and will hopefully begin the process of giving these excavators their deserved recognition.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.


Archie Bland

The GuardianTramp

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