Will Winter See Putin Go the Same Way As Napoleon & Hitler?

An inept command structure, dazzling mismanagement of human resources & a callous indifference to the huge scale of Russian losses, combined with the very real horrors of a Russian Winter, may yet undermine Putin’s war. But we’ve seen it all before…will things follow a similar pattern this time?

Peter Winn-Brown
17 min readJan 9, 2023
Peter the Great’s victory at the Battle of Poltava, 1709. By unknown artist.
Peter the Great’s victory at the Battle of Poltava, 1709.

“The weather was the most terrible that could be imagined. A sharp, gusty wind carried torn shreds of clouds, dark as flakes of flying soot, low over the earth. Suddenly snow began to pour from them with the convulsive haste of some white madness.

In a moment the distance was covered by a white shroud, the earth was spread with a white sheet. The next moment the sheet was burnt up, melted away. The soil appeared, black as coal, as did the black sky drenched from above by the slanting streaks of distant downpours. The earth could not take any more water into itself. In moments of brightening, the clouds parted, as if to air out the sky, windows were opened on high, shot through with a cold, glassy whiteness. The standing water, unabsorbed by the soil, responded from the ground with same thrust-open casements of puddles and lakes, filled with the same brilliance.”

Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak, (new translation) 2011 (1).

Winter on the Eurasian steppe must be a torrid experience. But to wage war under such harsh, life-killing conditions has long been known to be little more than the thickness of a snowflake from disaster for any army not suitably equipped to deal with some of the worst that mother nature can throw at man and machine.

Boris Pasternak gives the snow storm a life of its own, one that follows its doomed victims like a “she-werewolf that’s lost her young one,” if one plunges a knife into the pillars of snow, he writes, and you pull it out “all red with blood (1).”

A pitiless beast or not, the first great army to be swallowed by the remorseless Russian Winter was that of Sweden’s King Charles XII, who may well have unseated Peter I (later the Great) had it not been for the unbreakable cold.

After having made substantial advances into Russia, the blizzards arrived forcing Charles to take his army south into Ukraine to join up with the Cossacks, but the journey, undertaken during one of the worst Winters for 500 years took its cruel toll.

The following July, in 1709, as Charles and the Cossacks moved to cross the Dnieper, Peter’s Russian forces fell on them, ending the Great Northern War and bringing the curtain down on Sweden’s reign as a great European power.

But it was a little over one hundred years later that the Russian Winter took perhaps its most famous scalp; that of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Grande Armée.

In December of 1812 Napoleon’s imperium had reached its greatest extent, sprawling over the Western half of continental Europe (2), such that when Napoleon crossed the Vistula to begin his ill-fated, and as it turned out, ill-judged invasion of Russia, he took with him 655,000 men drawn from some twenty nations over which he ruled.

Less than a year later that vast army had been reduced to a shadow of its prime self; only 93,000 made it back, with the Central Army — some 450,000 strong at the start of the campaign — having by far the worst of it with only 25,000 crossing back over the Nieman to survive the journey home (2).

A devastating loss for Napoleon that was compounded by the deaths of over 200,000 horses and the loss of over a thousand cannon, a incalculable disaster that undoubtedly led ultimately to his abdication.

Andrew Roberts remarks wryly, that “the British could have fought for another 20 years in the (Iberian) Peninsula before they managed to inflict such a level of damage (2).”

Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, 1812. Painted by Adolph Northern (1851)
Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, 1812. Adolph Northern (1851).

In War and Peace, Tolstoy is scathing of Napoleon’s actions and his thinking, decrying his genius regularly, particularly in Volume IV of his classic work (3). That history doesn’t belabour the same errors with which Tolstoy incriminates Napoleon’s ‘genius’ is perhaps a reflection of our Western sensibilities which can sometimes gloss over the apparent flaws that are present in our military heroes.

I digress…

Genius or no, the fact remains that the Grande Armée had been crushed, its men shredded by the bitter cold of Winter winds that tore across the Eurasian steppe.

Starving, frozen and helpless, the French soldiers were slaughtered in the frozen wastes of the steppe, as hoards of vengeful peasants wielding sharpened scythes that had lain unused the previous Autumn, a consequence of the Russian scorched earth policy, and by blood-hungry Cossacks who hounded them day and night as they retreated, slicing and dicing the hapless, frost-bitten French, skewering them on their lances almost at will.

But the reckless pursuit of the French came at huge, but too often downplayed, cost for Russia. The Russians lost an estimated 200,000 men themselves in their headlong dash across the steppe to the Neiman.

But such catastrophic losses were passed off by the Russian leadership of the day as negligible, with the Russian officers having treated their men with the same callous indifference with which they treated their serfs at home. And the same throwaway disposability of manpower persists to this day and has thus far been a defining characteristic of Putin’s officers and leaders in the current invasion of Ukraine.

Little more than 80 years later as WWI neared Christmas 1914, initial Russian successes in late Summer, especially on their South-Western front in Galicia, had already ground to bloody halt.

General Alexis Brusilov, a career cavalry officer, had been given command of the Russian 8th Army. A man apart among the Russian military elite, his men initially had little knowledge or appreciation of their moustachioed, equestrian leader, but his brilliant command and tireless efforts on behalf of his mens welfare soon won them over (4).

A strict disciplinarian, he had banned the consumption of alcohol, even among the officer class, and fought day and night to ensure his men were well fed, suitably clothed and attired, and fully armed, such efforts that gave the men of his command every confidence in his leadership (4).

And they paid him back handsomely, making huge gains in the early Autumn of 1914, pushing the Austrians back more than 130 miles (210 kms) before the they were ground to a halt.

But it came at great cost with the loss of 200,000 Russian and more than 310,000 Austrian lives, losses that Brusilev felt deeply, but even in the midst of such horror he understood well enough that yet more sacrifice was needed to secure the safety of his beloved Russia (4).

He wrote to his wife from the front:

“The entire field of battle, for a distance of almost a 100 versts (about 60 miles) was piled high with corpses, and there weren’t enough people or stretchers to clear them away…Even to give drink and food to all those who were suffering proved impossible. This is the painful and seamy side of war…But we have to continue our difficult and terrible task for the good of the Fatherland, and I only pray that God may grant me the strength of mind and spirit to fulfil my duty…Blood is flowing in endless streams, but there is no other way to fight. The more blood flows the better the results and the sooner the war will end. As you see, it’s a hard and bitter task but a necessary one for victory. But it weighs terribly on my heart (4).”

But elsewhere inept Russian commanders failed to capitalise on early gains, offering the Germans the chance to regroup, to turn the tide and outmanoeuvre the stuttering Russians, shattering their armies, causing more than 250,000 deaths.

General von Rennenkampf, commander of the Russian 1st Army, was decisively outwitted, then realising his error he ordered a full retreat, the cost of his incompetence and cowardice was a further 60,000 Russian lives.

Later on, when the French representative at Russian Supreme HQ condoled with Grand Duke Nikolai over the needless loss of such a huge number of men, the Russian Commander-in-Chief said coldly, “Nous sommes heureux de faire de tels sacrifices pour nos alliées — We are happy to make such sacrifices for our allies (4).”

As the war progressed, Russia regressed. An often under-appreciated statistic is that Russia had started out the war with greater military expenditure than Germany. In terms of manpower and military resources it was at least the equal of Germany (4), but the common misconception among the allies, including Russia, that the war would ‘be over by Christmas’ cruelly exposed the unknown frailties of the Russian war machine.

The Russian military was prepared and fully able to wage war for perhaps six months, but once the initial advances stalled and the attritional grind of trench warfare took hold during that first Winter, there was no contingency for anything longer, and the losses began to mount (4).

Trenches on the Eastern Front in WWI.
Trenches on the Eastern Front in WWI.

Trench warfare for the Russian rank and file on the Eastern front was intolerable, and made worse by the tiered command structure that saw the officers retiring to snug, wooden cabins for their nightly repose, which led to a gnawing resentment and a growing understanding that they were little more than fodder for the relentless meat grinder of war.

As Russia descended into the chaos of a brutal, unforgiving civil war, with the Tsar having been disposed of and the Bolsheviks struggling to gain power, Lenin’s fledgling Red Army was too small, too poorly disciplined and too badly equipped to fend off the many foes it faced; the Germans in Ukraine, the British in the North, the Czechs on the Volga, the Japanese in the Far East, as well Kolchak’s Whites, backed up by the Allies on the Don, all wanted their share of Bolshevik blood.

Trotsky initiated a full scale mobilisation, with the intention of conscripting a huge army. By January 1919 the Red Army was some 800,000 strong, and by April it had doubled. The vast majority of the recruits came from the East where the Reds faced the biggest threat from the Whites, and the Red Army continued to grow.

We had decided to have an army of one million men by the Spring (of 1919) Lenin had said in October 1918, but “now we need an army of three million. We can have it!” he boldly declared, “And we shall have it! (4)”

And have it they did. In fact shortly afterwards it grew even further to 5 million men, and then even more over time.

Lenin addressing Red Army troops in 1920 as they prepare to leave for the Polish-Soviet War
Lenin addressing Red Army troops in 1920 as they prepare to leave for the Polish-Soviet War.

But such vast numbers actually had a negative effect on the Russian military. It had grown so fast that the malnourished Soviet economy could not keep up. Supplies of everything were lacking, the morale of conscripts collapsed leading to mass desertions of men, most taking what little they had been given with them.

The Red Army was sucked in a vicious circle of mass conscription, supply line failures and mass desertions (4). The Communist war economy which had been transformed to channel all efforts into the Red Army machine was grinding slowly towards complete collapse, resulting in famine on a massive scale.

And as the horrors of the civil war grew so too did the suffering of the men on the various frontlines.

Even Trotsky warned that, “Although we have not been brought down by Denikin or Kolchak, we may yet be brought down by overcoats or boots (4).”

Treatment of the living, the wounded and the dead, led unsurprisingly to huge problems of indiscipline, such that by 1921 it is thought more than 4 million had deserted.

Total Russian military deaths in WWI are estimated to be about 5.5 million, and with as many as 10 million more perishing during the carnage of the civil war. But the disregard shown by Russian leaders for the men under their command, with the rare exception of men like Brusilev, would appear to be an enduring, unfeeling characteristic of Russia at war.

Such huge losses are hard to imagine, but less than 25 years later those vast numbers would pale into insignificance as another megalomaniac leader bent on destruction once again braved the wilds of the Eurasian steppe.

Ignoring the lessons of history, his fatally flawed ‘scientific and racial biases’ driving his warped mission, Adolf Hitler, believing his armies invincible, launched Operation Barbarossa in part to denude Britain of the chance of Russia becoming an ally.

The idea of invading Moscow to get to London is in its most basic form a madness all of its own, until that is, as Roberts points out, “one recalls Hitler’s racial beliefs and mindset.

Hitler saw the British as natural German allies, Anglo-Saxon Aryans, much as he saw the Germans. The Russian Slavs he deemed to be racially inferior, calling them ‘untermenschen,’ or sub-humans, telling his Generals on 14th June 1941, that (the Russians) ‘despite their superior numbers would only last six weeks (5).’

Two days later, in a long and in-depth meeting with Goebbels at the Reich Chancellery Hitler warned his Propaganda Minister of the imperative to ‘avoid any repeat of Napoleon’s experience in Russia.’

Goebbels dismissed the idea. Although the ‘Greek campaign had cost (the Germans) dear’ and had led to an unforeseen delay in the launch of Barbarossa, he confidently predicted that the Bolsheviks would ‘collapse like a house of cards’ in less than the four months Hitler had allowed for the Operation (5).

Fuhrer Directive 21, issued to all the most important Reich figures 6 months prior in December 1940, made it clear that Hitler very much saw the conquest of Russia as another Blitzkriek operation, but over a front 1,800 miles (3,000 kms) long, more than six times that achieved in Western Europe.

The Directive noted that the capture of Moscow, though a desirable political objective, was not deemed essential to the success of Barbarossa. It is sobering to note that Stalingrad was not mentioned at all (5).

An hour before dawn, at 03.15am on Sunday 22 June 1941, Barbarossa got under way, the Wehrmacht achieving a complete and utter tactical surprise over the Soviets as the armoured columns raced across Russian territory. The Luftwaffe above attained total air dominance, destroying more than 1,200 Soviet aircraft on the first morning; more aircraft than they’d destroyed during the whole of the Battle of Britain (5).

Stalin was frozen, disbelieving, paralysed. The Red Army was in a state of shambles. Nine-tenths of the new Soviet mechanised corps was destroyed in the first week as Stalin dithered incoherently, his only reasonable decision being to call up an initial 5 million civilians, both men and women, in an attempt to stem the flight (5).

But the initial German advances, though rapid, were once again stalling as the Summer sun faded, shadows lengthened and Autumn pushed across the steppe.

Leningrad and Moscow, though mere sideshows in the original plan, stubbornly held out, eating up German men, resources and vital fuel as Autumn turned to Winter.

Though yet to suffer any serious setbacks it became clear to Hitler that Barbarossa, as originally conceived, was no longer achievable. Vast numbers of German troops were tied down at the siege cities, and the Russian Winter was beginning to take its toll on man and machine.

The Winter of 1941–42 came early, and to make matters worse still for the Germans, the Soviet counterattacks were becoming more organised, better planned and more frequent.

Unprepared for the immense hardships of Winter on the steppe, the Panzers, with narrow tracks and engine lubricants that would freeze in the Arctic conditions became inoperable, and men fitted out for a Summer campaign were suffering unbelievably in temperatures that could go as low as minus 35°C.

By March 1942 the Wehrmacht had lost 1.1 million men, dead, wounded or missing, which amounted to 35% of the Eastern armies total strength. But their mobility as well was being severely hampered by the loss of 40,000 lorries, 30,000 and unknown thousands of tanks (6).

The balmy Summer days of huge advances and retreating Russians must have seemed like a distant memory to the freezing Germans.

In stark contrast, the Soviets had learned the lessons of the failed Finnish campaign in the Winter of 1939–40 well. Their troops wore padded, white camouflage outfits, far more effective at keeping the bitter cold at bay than the German greatcoats, and the Russian tanks had been developed with much wider tracks that could cope with the snow drifts, and lubricants that would withstand the freezing conditions.

Hitler was by this time becoming increasingly worried about the possibility of the Americans entering the war, and worrying signs that the Romanian oilfields that supplied most of their fuel were being targeted by the Soviets*.

It was becoming clear that to keep the Wehrmacht rolling another, more plentiful supply of oil was needed. Chief of Staff Halder summed it up like this in the Spring of 1942:

“The war will be decided in the East” and “only through possession of that territory (the Transcaucasus) will the German war empire be viable in the long-term,” and then a couple of months later he told his Generals, “if we don’t get to Maykop and Grozny I shall have to pack up the war (6).”

Frost bitten soldiers of the German 6th Army after Paulus had surrendered.
Frost bitten soldiers of the German 6th Army after Field Marshall Paulus had surrendered.

That German dream of course, ended at Stalingrad far short of the black gold in the Caucasus, with Field Marshall Paulus’s surrender, as more than 90,000 German troops hobbled out of the city on frost-bitten feet to spend the rest of the war in treacherous conditions in Soviet POW camps.

From there the Wehrmacht was marching in the footsteps of Napoleon, the very thing Hitler had said his armies should avoid and it became something of a race among the allies to get Berlin first.

As Anthony Beevor said drily in his recent article in Foreign Affairs, “General Winter (had) played a major role in the Red Army’s final victory (come) 1945.” And as if to rub the sore point in for the Germans, Soviet Colonel, Iosif Gusakovsky said boastfully to Stalin, “Our tanks move faster than the (German) trains to Berlin.

And now 70 years later it would seem that the lessons hard learned by Stalin and his commanders have been forgotten by Putin. The poor treatment and throwaway attitude to Russians troops remains, but the preparation is severely lacking.

Seven disastrous months into the war Putin finally ordered a ‘partial mobilization’ of the Russian population, but the Kremlin had to warn those called up that uniforms and equipment were in short supply. The conscripts were told they would have to provide their own body armor, and even ask their mothers and girlfriends for sanitary pads to use instead of field dressings.

The lack of such a simple, basic thing as bandages is quite shocking, especially now as winter intensifies, since they are vital to keep frost from entering open wounds. Even a scratch left uncovered in such conditions can very quickly become a disabling problem.

To add to the dangers mortar rounds hitting frozen ground can cause fragments of red hot shrapnel to ricochet in highly lethal ways, unlike the soft, absorbant mud of Autumn or Spring.

But it’s not just the living who get the short end. Injured and dead are similarly disrespected.

In a video released on his own media channel, Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group of mercenaries said of his badly injured men, “…the fact that they have been left without legs, without arms, without their eyesight doesn’t mean they (can) go home. They can carry out duties that don’t require both legs. They can work as sappers. If another mine explodes, their metal leg will be blown off and we’ll weld another one on.

Just a few days ago he watched impassively as his fallen fighters were stacked up one on top of another in black body bags in a gloomy makeshift morgue in eastern Ukraine.

“Their contracts have finished. They will go home next week. They died heroically at the front,” he said in another video, “So long, guys. Happy new year!”

Ukrainian emergency services search for survivors after a Russian missile attack on residential building in Zaporizhzhia
Ukrainian emergency services search for survivors following a Russian missile attack on a residential building in Zaporizhzhia.

“The boundaries which divide life from death are at best shadowy and vague. Who can say where the one ends, and where the other begins?”

Edgar Allan Poe

The reason why Russian men continue to fight are every bit as shadowy, and just as vague as Poe’s musings on the undefined line between life and death.

Speaking on the The Daily, the NYT podcast (6), and in his shocking written reports in the Times, war reporter Michael Schwirtz and colleagues, relate their findings after talking to Putin’s Russian troops on their experiences, thought and feelings about Russia, the war, and their motivations, or not, as the case may be.

One Russian soldier, Mikhail, one of those newly conscripted troops from Putin’s patriotic partial mobilisation tells how the men of his platoon had been duped. Told they never see combat, they were given 50 year old Kalashnikov rifles, little ammo, no food, and then piled on top of a truck and shipped off to God knows where without maps or orders.

But no one was fearful. They were far from the frontline, with no back up, no artillery, when all of a sudden their dream like revery was stripped away as Ukrainian shells began to tear the men about him to pieces.

This isn’t war,” Mikhail said, struggling to speak through heavy, liquid breaths. “It’s the destruction of the Russian people by their own commanders.”

Mikhail’s platoon lost 40 of its 60 new recruits within 4 hours of arriving at the front they had been told they would never see.

Mikhail himself was wounded, and yet he fully intended to return to the front. When asked why, he blandly said, there was nowhere else to go!

As shocking as that might be, perhaps the most macabre revelation is that of Yevgeny Nuzhin, a convicted murderer who took up Prigozhin’s offer of amnesty and the chnace to fight for his Wagner Group against the Ukrainian nazis.

Nuzhin, was candid when interviewed as a POW, that he never intended to fight. On his second day on the frontline he crossed over the frontline and was captured.

I think this war is Putin’s grave,” he said to the Times reporters whilst in Ukrainian custody.

But Nuzhin was unfortunate enough to be part of a prisoner swap at a later date, and he found himself back in the hands of Wagner comrades who have a very specific punishment for those prisoners who they see as deserters.

Schwirtz told (5) how the next time he saw Nuzhin was in a propaganda video released by Wagner and Prigozhin. Nuzhim’s head was tied to a block and another Russian soldier stood over him with a sledgehammer…I think you can imagine the rest.

If Russian commanders attitude to death and the mistreatment of their men is something cultural, something interred disturbingly deep in the Russian psyche, something perhaps like Poe’s assertion, that the line between life and death is vague and undefined, a shadowy spectre that perhaps can be crossed in either direction, then perhaps installing the fear of no return into your men is one way of maintaining some degree of discipline?

Perhaps one way of crushing that hope of a miraculous return is to smash a man’s skull. To pulverise and pulp his brain with a sledgehammer to end any hope of resurrection. How will their Orthodox God look upon such men — the men swinging the sledgehammer; the men issuing the orders; and the men who arrive at Heaven’s Gate with their heads caved in?

Such treatment of anyone is far beyond my comprehension. The minds that conjure such madness as a motivation to fight is like something out of Poe’s imaginings; it is to my mind, nothing less than evil in its purest form.

One wonders what Poe himself might make of the medieval wickedness that drives the Russian elites and commanders. Would he find justification or, like me, would he see only the darkness of the devils work?

Thanks for reading.

*My next post will be a companion piece to go with this one, where I will look more closely at the battle for the Crimean peninsula in WWII, events that attain a new relevance in the current climate with President Zelensky’s assertion that he fully intends to evict Putin’s Russian invaders from the region that most experts see as vital to Putin’s legacy and his continued reign.

  1. Doctor Zhivago; Boris Pasternak, 1958. A new translation by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky, 2010.
  2. Napoleon and Wellington; Andrew Roberts, 2001.
  3. War and Peace; Leo Tolstoy, 1868.
  4. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution; Orlando Figes, 100th Anniversary Edition, 2017.
  5. Storm of War: A new history of the second World War; Andrew Roberts, 2009.
  6. Victory at Stalingrad; Geoffrey Roberts, 2002.
Depiction of a Ukrainian flag with the words ‘solidarity with the people of Ukraine against Russian aggression’ across it.



Peter Winn-Brown

The past can illuminate the present if we shine the light of inquiry openly, truthfully, with attention to detail & care for the salient facts.