Ukraine prepares for renewed Russian offensive

Ukrainian forces are bracing for an imminent large-scale attack by Russian troops as the Kremlin seeks to regain the initiative in the war and seize the rest of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials have multiplied warnings in recent days about a coming Russian offensive, albeit with differing timelines. Russian forces have so far this winter made only incremental territorial gains around Bakhmut, in Donetsk province, and near Kreminna in Luhansk.

But an attack now would allow them to strike before the arrival of western tanks and infantry fighting vehicles reinforces Ukraine’s offensive capability.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in his nightly address on Saturday evening, said Ukraine was entering a “time when the occupier throws more and more of its forces to break our defences”.

An adviser to the Ukrainian military told the Financial Times that Kyiv had obtained “very solid intelligence of intent” by Russia to launch the attack, adding that it could come within 10 days.

Andriy Chernyak, an official in Ukraine’s military intelligence, told the Kyiv Post news outlet on Wednesday that Russian president Vladimir Putin had ordered his armed forces to capture all of Donetsk and Luhansk by March.

“Given that they live by symbolism they are going to try something around the 24th of February,” defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov told French broadcaster BFMTV, referring to the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.

Ukraine’s defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov, centre, during an EU-Ukraine summit in Kyiv on Friday © Ukrainian Presidential Press/AFP/Getty Images

Similar predictions of a Russian offensive were made at the time of Russia’s annual commemoration of victory over Nazi Germany on May 9 last year, but never materialised.

This time, however, Ukrainian officials have observed significant build-ups of Russian forces in the east and south-east of the country.

“We’ve observed that the Russian occupation forces are redeploying additional assault groups, units, weapons and military equipment to the east,” Chernyak said. “According to the military intelligence of Ukraine, Putin gave the order to seize all of the territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions by March.”

Much of the fighting in recent weeks has been around Bakhmut, where Ukrainian forces appear to be in a last-ditch battle to prevent the city from being captured by Russia.

“This week, the Russian occupation forces threw all their efforts into breaking through our defence and encircling Bakhmut, and launched a powerful offensive in the Lyman sector,” deputy defence minister Anna Maliar wrote on Telegram on Saturday. “But thanks to the resilience of our soldiers, they did not succeed.”

Analysts think a likely point for a fresh Russian attack is in the west of Luhansk province near Kreminna and Lyman, a city retaken by Ukrainian troops in last autumn’s counter-offensive. Russia has been assembling forces there for weeks, according to local officials and western analysts.

But Moscow is also building up its troops in the south of Donetsk province, with additional forces being deployed to villages around occupied Mariupol, according to an exiled local official.

“If they’re smart they will concentrate all their forces in one small place,” said the military adviser.

Ukrainian troops make checks on a T-64 battle tank
Ukrainian troops make checks on a T-64 battle tank © Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

According to Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukrainian military intelligence, Russia has 326,000 troops fighting in Ukraine. About half of the 300,000 men Russia said it mobilised last autumn had been given months of training, making them potentially more effective troops than the recruits that were immediately thrown into battle.

The Ukrainian military adviser said a renewed Russian attack would probably be spearheaded by elite units.

“We have to be serious,” he said. “These are proper mechanised brigades even if they are less capable than they were at the beginning of the war. They’ve reinforced the VDV [airborne] and marine units. These are not bus drivers and schoolteachers.”

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