Bezdorizhzhya means “roadlessness” in Ukrainian (it’s rasputitsa in Russian), and it refers to to the semi-annual mud season that hits Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia in the spring and fall. During this season, off-road or unpaved movement becomes dramatically more difficult.
Historically, bezdorizhzhya has made offensive actions in this corner of the world significantly more difficult, as both Adolf Hitler and Napoleon discovered to their chagrin. Famously, Russia chose to start its full-scale invasion of Ukraine shortly before the spring bezdorizhzhya of 2022, resulting in many of its units being slowed or stopped by mud.
As fthe all bezdorizhzhya approaches, some analysts and experts, like American Army General (and outgoing Joint Chiefs Chair) Mark Milley, are concerned that Ukraine only has 4-6 weeks before mud season gets in the way of its counteroffensive. But as Daily Kos’ Markos Moulitsas recently predicted, that might not necessarily be the case—and not just because Ukraine’s infantry tactics are better suited to navigating the mud.
Fact is, bezdorizhzhya doesn’t impact all of Ukraine the same.
Much of Ukraine has a clay-rich black soil called cheronzem (“black soil” in Russian), with a high moisture retention ability. Chernozem largely explains how Ukraine’s northern and central farmlands require little to no irrigation. However, this moisture retention ability is precisely what turns the Ukrainian countryside into an unnavigable morass of sticky mud able to swallow entire tanks.
In those conditions, armored vehicles struggle anywhere outside paved surfaces (where they can more easily be targeted by artillery). Trucks have trouble delivering supplies. Yet despite the conventional wisdom, mud season may prove a boon to Ukraine’s counteroffensive—not a hindrance.
Mud season is milder in the south
Bezdorizhzhya comes twice a year, but its effects tend to be far more significant in the spring than in the fall.
In much of Ukraine, winters tend to be quite cold and harsh, resulting in the accumulation of snow. The snowmelt combines with the spring rains to create an extremely high moisture content in the topsoil.
This is exacerbated by a layer of underground frozen earth that persists deep into spring. This frozen earth traps moisture from spring rains and melting snow from draining into groundwater. High levels of moisture are thus retained in the topsoil for weeks, while the frozen earth slowly melts below.
None of that is a factor in the fall.
Bezdorizhzhya also isn’t just about rain. Surprisingly, Ukraine experiences the most rain during the late spring to early summer—around May to July. This is true in southern Ukraine, northern Ukraine, and eastern Ukraine alike. So why is mud season in the fall instead of the summer? Because of temperature and evaporation. Fall bezdorizhzhya generally begins when average daily temperatures drop below 5° C (41° F); the lower temperatures reduce moisture evaporation.
Cities like Luhansk and Kyiv reach that average daily temperature sometime in October. The summer rains have raised the water tables, the high moisture retention of Chernozem soil locks much of this moisture in place and maintains a high water table, and so Ukraine’s fertile farmland is happy!
But when the fall rains arrive, the ground is already saturated from the summer rains, and cooler temperatures reduce evaporation. Most of the Ukrainian countryside turns into a giant mud pit.
But there is an exception to both of these points: southern Ukraine. The area hosting the fiercest, most consequential fighting of the war differs from northern Ukraine in both soil type and climate, mitigating the extent of mud season.
While much of Ukraine’s soil is composed of various types of Chernozems with high moisture retention, the exception is in southern Ukraine, around Tokmak, Melitopol, and Kherson.
It may be no coincidence that while they were bogged down everywhere else, Russia’s biggest successes in the spring of 2022 were exactly those cities—Kherson, Melitopol, Tokmak, and Mariupol to their south. Their armored forces were able to maneuver across the fields and plains of this region without dealing with mud challenges. Currently, Ukraine is just 8-9 miles north of this drier soil, just north of Tokmak.
Still, there is more to mud season than soil type. Temperature plays a huge role. Remember—warmer air allows more evaporation, and southern Ukraine remains warmer than the north.
Average temperatures in Kyiv: October: 10° C (51° F); November: 4° C (40° F); December: -1° C (31° F)
Average temperatures in Tokmak: October: 13° C (55° F); November: 6° C (43° F); December: 1° C (34° F)
Mud season is triggered at 5° C (41° F); even just a few degrees is enough to push that tipping point number later into the calendar, giving additional time for southern Ukraine to dry out from the summer rainy season. The more of the summer rains are dried out, the less chance bezdorizhzhya happens at all. (And don’t forget, Kyiv’s soil retains more moisture than Tokmak’s, which is happier to dry out.)
The final factor is precipitation.
Much of southern Ukraine, from Melitopol to northern Crimea, experienced an exceptional mud season this spring, as heavy winter snow and spring rain pushed moisture levels high. Those uncharacteristically muddy conditions likely played a role in Ukraine’s decision to delay the start of the counteroffensive. We don’t know what next spring will bring, but none of this is currently a factor in the months ahead.
Remember, for the south to experience bezdorizhzhya, southern Ukraine would need to see heavy rains in the late summer, which would elevate the water table, and face a cold winter that arrives early, with daily temperatures dropping below 5° C.
While we can’t predict when the weather will turn cold, Ukraine hasn’t had abnormally high summer rains. In fact, it’s been the opposite—below average precipitation.
Paired with record-high summer temperatures, southern Ukraine actually has experienced a drier-than-average summer, and that doesn’t appear to be likely to change through the end of the season. Indeed, the Ukrainian agricultural ministry has been expressing concerns about crop impacts from that drier weather.
So with forecasts for a mild winter throughout Europe, we may end up with exactly none of the factors necessary to trigger a severe fall mud season. And so Ukraine’s southern offensive is very unlikely to be directly adversely affected by the fall berdorizhzhya.
(Incidentally, rainfall was higher than average in northern Ukraine, which may trigger a particularly nasty berdorizhzhya there—the only area where Russia is still trying to advance.)
The Mud Season is a golden opportunity to concentrate forces in the south
As of late August 2023, Ukraine was conducting the below offensives in blue, while Russia was conducting its own offensives in red. However, two things have altered the strategic calculus of these ongoing offensives.
In late July, Ukraine breached the first Russian defensive line east of Robotyne. Then, on August 28, Ukrainian forces liberated Robotyne, cracking Russia’s first major line.
It took Ukraine only a week to breach the second line of trenches west of Verbove and gain a foothold beyond Russia’s 2nd line of defenses on Sept. 4. Ukraine also made gains directly south of Robotyne, capturing a series of trenchworks to the northeast of Russia’s main trench defenses of Novoprokopivka.
Russian forces appeared to be on their heels, and all the momentum with Ukraine.
So Russia made a major move, transferring its 76th Guards Air Assault Division (known as GAAD) from the eastern front to Tokmak.
Ukraine had two possible responses:
- Mirror Russia’s movement, and transfer troops to the southern theater (or elsewhere); or
- Take advantage of the reduced Russian presence on the eastern front and intensify its attacks.
Ukraine chose option two.
As a result of the reduced Russian presence on the eastern front, Ukraine has made fresh gains south of Bakhmut, as well as south of Avdiivka (northwest of Donetsk). On the other hand, the fresh reinforcements stabilized the Russian line on the approach to Tokmak. Ukraine hasn’t made any significant gains since the arrival of the 76th GAAD, but it has held its progress in the face of repeated Russian counterattacks (because that’s what they do).
So why has Ukraine chosen to preference gains around Bakhmut and Donetsk, instead of pressing its advantage toward Tokmak? One hint may be in where Ukraine has chosen to launch and intensify its attacks.
Near Donetsk, Avdiivka has became a dangerous salient in the Ukrainian line as Russian forces attempted to encircle the Ukrainian position. In April, Ukrainian counterattacks to the city’s south alleviated the pressure somewhat, but the city remains a precarious but heavily fortified salient in the Ukrainian defensive line.
It is clear that Ukraine is now attempting to flatten that line, attacking Russian positions south of Avdiivka, and ultimately removing the threat of Avdiivka’s encirclement.
By pushing the Russian line back in this area, Avdiivka’s precarious position will be largely resolved, its flanks and rear supply lines secured. As a result, fewer, and lower quality troops should be able to hold their ground.
Something similar can be said of Bakhmut. What was, at the start of June, an isolated salient around Khromove as Russia threatened to swallow Ivanivske and Chasiv Yar, has been flattened, particularly in the south.
Ukrainian offensive actions south of Bakhmut appear to serve two purposes: positional and attritional.
A 2-month counterattack south of Bakhmut led by Ukraine’s 3rd Assault Brigade has secured the heights west of Klishchiivka and may have destroyed Russia’a 72nd Brigade defending newly liberated Adriivka.
On the positional side, Ukraine has been straightening the line south of Bakhmut, controlling the dominant heights to the south of its main defensive position at Khromove, protecting the highway leading towards Bakhmut from Russian fire control, and establishing a secure defensive position on the hill west of Klischiivka.
But why not stop there? This is better understood in an attritional context.
Controlling the dominant heights to the west, Ukraine can observe Russian positions below the hill for its artillery and rocket batteries to strike exposed Russian positions.
From those heights, Ukraine can deal deal crippling losses to its enemy while suffering substantially fewer losses. In fact, the Third Assault Brigade claims that a significant element of the Russian 72nd Motor Brigade were encircled inside Andriivka, their entire command staff killed, and significant additional troops killed or surrendered.
But what happens next?
In four to six weeks, temperatures will begin to quickly drop across northern and eastern Ukraine. By mid to late October, both Avdiivka and Bakhmut will hit the 5° C mark that heralds the arrival of mud season.
The plan may be for Ukraine to try to establish a dominant and efficient defensive position in Bakhmut and Avdiivk,a while attritting enemy forces in as favorable conditions as possible. Then, when mud season arrives, and offensive operations grow difficult for both sides, Ukraine could settle in defensively, and have a surplus of forces available to reposition southward.