Winter as a Weapon of War

Especially in Russia, extreme cold has long factored in military successes and failures. Napoleon comes to mind. In the War of 1812, he led the French army into Russia in late June. After initial success he was unprepared for the war of attrition, resupply difficulties, and terrible cold that followed. Ultimately, three-quarters of the French army succumbed.

During the record-breaking winter of 1941-42, the brutal temperatures worked against the Russian civilians trapped in Leningrad. German forces encircled the city before the cold weather arrived, cutting off the city’s food supply. They bombed and shelled, multiplying the citizen’s misery by destroying electrical power and water pumping stations. The people of Leningrad were deprived of heat, electricity, water, and food.

Sound familiar? Today, Russian missiles strike Ukraine’s infrastructure day after day. Many Ukrainian cities are already without heat and electricity. Although I am confident the world will not let the extreme suffering of Leningrad be repeated in Ukraine, the comparison is striking nonetheless. In the epic WW II siege of Leningrad, the starving citizens burned their furniture and books against the crushing cold, drew buckets of water through holes in the ice, ate wallpaper paste and sometimes each other. Their four-ounce daily bread ration was as much sawdust as it was flour. One million residents died, most of starvation. One of the greatest civilian tragedies in military history.

Vladimir Putin’s nonstop attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure is not the only WW II parallel. The Russian dictator started attacking train stations last spring. He bombed civilians trying to escape in Kramatorsk and other places. Similarly, Nazi Germany targeted train stations in and around Leningrad. The most despicable of those strikes occurred when Hitler bombed trains full of children trying to evacuate just weeks before the city was surrounded. Thousands perished.

It is chilling, pun intended, that someone whose family and nation suffered so grievously at the hands of the Nazis should today attempt to inflict similar horror upon Ukrainian civilians. Vladimir Putin was born in 1952 and raised in Leningrad. His father fought in WW II. His mother was a blokadnik—a survivor of the siege of Leningrad. Their infant son (who would have been Putin’s older brother) died of starvation in 1942, along with a third of the city’s population.

Despite this family history, Putin would take us back to that time; the time of Hitler and Stalin, a time of persecution and murder on an unimaginable scale. The degree of destruction occurring in Ukraine at this moment in history bears witness to Putin’s goal of eliminating Ukraine as a nation. And that political goal is even more chilling than his tactic of using winter as a weapon of war.


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