Ukraine counter-offensive: Waiting for the end of the mud season


The people of Ukraine are expecting their army to launch a counter-offensive against the Russian attackers in the spring. When, that also depends on the weather. An ex-soldier in the US provides forecasts.

There is no tracked vehicle coming either by: mud in autumn and spring in southern and eastern Ukraine

In the background, dishes rattle during a video call with weather expert David Helms in the USA. The US Air Force veteran is sitting at home in the US state of Virginia and the main question right now is: “When does the mud season end” – in Ukraine? His thoughts are on the weather, which the soldiers in the trenches at the front also have to contend with. The “spring mud season” started earlier this year, writes David Helms in an analysis for DW, “after the months of March and February were about two degrees Celsius warmer than in winter. So we already have some drying out in modest Scope seen, mainly in the south, less so in the north and east.”

A former US Air Force meteorologist, David Helms is now analyzing the weather over the Ukrainian front

The retired meteorologist analyzes the weather in the midst of war and posts his forecasts on social media using the hashtag “#NAFOWeather”.

This makes him one of many volunteers tweeting worldwide who are supporting Ukraine's fight against the Russian attackers in the digital world. “For me, these are just people who are interested in Ukraine and support them in whatever way they can.” Like him, David Helms from Virginia.

He writes, for example, when there will be “optimal opportunities for optical satellite reconnaissance,” says Helms. Other activists then use donations to order satellite images from private providers such as Maxar and make them available to the Ukrainian commanders at the front. When the sky is clear for the best photo from space.

End of Mud Season Forecast

These weeks, David Helms' forecasts have a special meaning: Anyone who can determine the regionally different end of the mud season in Ukraine is approaching the answer to the question of when Ukraine can switch to a counter-offensive in order to further land occupied by the Russian armed forces to free. In his daily video messages, the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyj announces them, as does his Minister of Defence, who is thanking him via video for the Leopard 2 main battle tanks or the Challenger 2 from Great Britain or the German Marder infantry fighting vehicle.

In Ukraine, the “mud season”, the so-called “Rasputiza”, makes fields and unpaved roads impassable for a month in autumn due to rain and in spring due to melting snow. Tanks, troop carriers and artillery pieces are then stuck in the soft mud.

“Between the amount of moisture and volume in the top 20 centimeters of soil, soil strength decreases with increasing moisture.” It's an exponential development, says Helms. “It changes very quickly at certain points as humidity increases,” says Helms. “All winter moisture accumulated in the form of snow and the surface of the soil was mostly frozen, although due to climate change the top layer of soil thawed intermittently this winter.” The phenomenon has to do with the geography in many areas of Eastern Europe: flat land as far as the eye can see and the nature of the soil. In Ukraine, it is the black earth that makes the southern part of the country one of the most fertile regions in the world. 

Which vehicles are suitable?

The former military meteorologist Helms has also worked for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and dealt with the hydrological consequences of climate change – i.e. the change in the composition of soils.

Ukrainian National Guard soldiers during an exercise in the Zaporizhia region in the south of the country

< p>Just like in Ukraine. “The mud season associated with military vehicles depends not only on the strength of the ground, but also on the types of vehicles intended for an offensive operation,” Helms told DW. To put it simply: How heavy tanks and armored personnel carriers are and how many people they transport determines whether or not they get stuck in the Ukrainian mud or not.

Helms has now decided on the front in Ukraine: “The Soil moisture climatology and soil moisture loss climatology will increase significantly from May 1 and beyond,” Helms writes in the analysis for DW. The soil in southern Ukraine will dry out as early as mid-April. In the Donetsk region (oblast) two weeks later and from mid-May also in the Russian-occupied Luhansk Oblast further north.

This is significant: The Ukrainian army could launch a counter-offensive in the south towards the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol begin while Russian tanks are still stuck in the mud in eastern Ukraine.