War in Ukraine: Marshall Mud is winning again

No one with an ounce of humanity can look on at this barbaric slaughter of Ukrainians without wanting it to end immediately. This article is about one plan which seems to have gone badly wrong for the Russians, and is only likely to get worse until it becomes a humanitarian catastrophe.

In the first few days of the war, a huge column of Russian vehicles sped past what should have been a poignant reminder of past disasters, the still-radioactive remains of Chernobyl nuclear power station, turned right and headed south towards the capital Kyiv. At the same time, Russian paratroopers made a major air assault on Antonov Airport at Hostomel, close to the north-west of Kyiv. Plan A became apparent: a lightning assault on the capital, replace the legitimate leaders of Ukraine with a puppet regime, to be secured by the forces arriving imminently by road from the north.

That Russian plan failed on three counts. First, Ukrainian forces fought tooth and nail to regain Hostomel, ensuring those Russian paratroopers never reached their objective and weren’t even able to defend the airport to allow reinforcement. Second, the people of Kyiv clearly weren’t going to roll over and let any of this happen. But worst of all, that huge column of vehicles still hasn’t reached the northern outskirts of the city, well over a week after they had crossed the border from Belarus on 24 February.

At first Western commentators were baffled. Were the vehicles in that forty-mile long column regrouping, perhaps? It took the expert interpretation of @TrentTelenko and others to explain what had gone wrong: a combination of poor vehicle maintenance weakening tyres, widespread use of poor quality Chinese tyres, breakdowns, fuel shortage, and what the Russians term rasputitsa (распу́тица), in Ukrainian bezdorizhzhya (Бездоріжжя). This has also been exacerbated ingeniously by Ukrainian troops, who have seized the opportunity to flood much of the ground they have yet to cross, putting many of the vehicles up a creek without a paddle.

Rasputitsa refers to the two periods in the year in which the land of the steppe, in particular, turns into mud: after harvest with autumn rains before the winter freeze, and at this time of the year as the winter’s snow thaws. Away from well-made roads, travel becomes all but impossible as the mud runs deep enough to engulf vehicle axles. As you can imagine, with a blown tyre or two and dwindling fuel, such deep mud can bring any vehicle to a grinding halt.

Józef Marian Chełmoński (1849–1914), Market (date not known), oil on canvas, 57.5 x 67.5 cm, Kościuszko Foundation, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

So far, accounts of what has probably been happening to that column of vehicles haven’t considered the personnel inside them. With fuel in short supply and rations running out, this is no time to be static in temperatures around freezing. Vehicle heating relies on fuel; human internal heat relies on food. You don’t have to live on half rations for many days before you realise how important a good meal is in keeping you warm. There’s also the problem of drinking water: although the ground is sodden, you can’t drink mud. You don’t need as much fluid intake in cold as you do in heat, but we still don’t live long without adequate water intake.

Rasputitsa conditions have a long history of causing military disasters. They hampered Napoleon’s army in 1812 when he was invading Russia, and slowed Hitler’s advance on the eastern front in 1941. Trenches of the First World War claimed many casualties from cold and mud until armies learned the importance of counter-measures and troop rotation. Forty years ago, in the Falklands War, extensive peat bog came close to rendering crack British infantry unable to put in their final attack.

For those trapped to the north of Kyiv, each day now increases the risk of hypothermia and local cold injury.

Hypothermia is insidious, and a well-known killer. It was responsible for a great many of the deaths which almost wiped out Napoleon’s and Hitler’s forces during their agonising retreats from Russia, and still kills soldiers on training exercises around the world. Those who are rescued alive but profoundly hypothermic require carefully controlled rewarming in intensive care if they’re to have any reasonable chance of survival. Many more than a handful of casualties can overwhelm the resources of even well-equipped hospitals in peacetime.

Local cold injury is less well-known, except during warfare in cold conditions. It too was widespread among those retreating from Moscow, and was common in the First World War (Trench Foot), Second World War (particularly in the Ardennes, as well as the German retreat from Russia), Korean War (notably among those who fought at Chosin Reservoir), and the Falklands War.

It comes in two basic forms: freezing (frostbite), and non-freezing (including trench and immersion foot). I’m sure you recall gruesome images of those who have suffered frostbite when in extreme cold and (often) high altitude. Although this is likely to be mutilating, it’s well recognised and generally well treated.

Non-freezing cold injury results from longer exposure to temperatures above freezing, often coupled with dehydration, hypothermia, immobility, and water or mud. While the feet or hands just go numb when they’re cold, when rewarmed they rapidly become exquisitely painful, red and swollen. In well-trained troops, this can occur during regular foot care routines, and may result in such quick swelling that the boots can’t be replaced – which was a widespread problem among British infantry in the Falklands. Pain following rewarming is so severe that some are driven to try to amputate their own feet. It makes walking impossible, prevents sleep, and isn’t even relieved by narcotics like morphine. This really isn’t the sort of problem you’d want to suffer from if you were stuck in one of those Russian vehicles.

Unless it transpires that those Russians have been sitting comfortably playing cards all this time, every day on the road is going to mean more of them develop hypothermia and/or local cold injury. When they’re finally recovered, there could be hundreds or even thousands requiring hospital care.

While my concerns about those Russians are humanitarian, I’m worried that innocent Ukrainians are also at risk of non-freezing cold injury. The last time I’m aware of such large numbers taking shelter in underground stations and the like was in London during the Blitz in 1941-42. Look back in the medical journals of the day and you’ll come across a condition which was frequently encountered among them, dubbed shelter limb. It’s clinically identical to non-freezing cold injury of the feet, and was noted particularly among those who spent long nights sleeping in ‘deck chairs’, which can apply pressure to the tops of the calves.

In war, no one wins, just loses less.

C R W Nevinson (1889-1946), Paths of Glory (1917), oil on canvas, 45.7 x 60.9 cm, The Imperial War Museum, London. By courtesy of The Imperial War Museums © IWM (Art.IWM ART 518).

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

(Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written In A Country Church-Yard, 1750)

I apologise to those who were expecting discussion of Apple’s next Event coming shortly, but just now this seems more important. Before you ask how I know all this, it’s what I spent much of my professional career treating, studying and researching. I too served ashore during the Falklands War forty years ago, and have suffered cold injury of the hands and feet. I’d also like to thank the Ukrainians who have kindly provided me with additional information; for the moment I’ll leave that non-specific in case it should ever return to haunt us.