Russia is mobilizing a huge contingent of troops and is planning an offensive to coincide with the first anniversary of the war on Feb. 24, Ukraine’s Defence Minister has warned, while a city in the country’s east has come under attack for the second day in a row.
Speaking Wednesday evening on the French news channel BFM TV during a visit to Paris, Oleksii Reznikov said the Ukrainian military believes the number of Russian troops amassing along the border and in occupied territories is approaching 500,000 – far more than the general mobilization of 300,000 that Russia revealed in September.
“We do not underestimate our enemy,” Mr. Reznikov said. “Officially, they announced 300,000, but we see the troops at the borders. According to our assessments, it is much more.”
He said the Russian offensive probably would come from Ukraine’s east, the scene of intensive fighting in recent weeks, and the south. “We think that, given that [Russia] lives in symbolism, they will try something around Feb. 24,” he said, adding, “we keep telling our partners that we have to be ready for this as quickly as possible, and that’s why we need weapons.”
On Wednesday, a Russian missile destroyed an apartment building in the city of Kramatorsk, in the northern region of Donetsk, killing three residents and injuring 20, local police said. The number of dead and wounded is expected to rise as rescuers sift through the rubble. On Thursday, Kramatorsk was hit again by missiles, damaging more than a dozen residential buildings and injuring at least five people.
Earlier this week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, citing the Russian surge in the east, said the Russian offensive may have already begun. “I think that Russia really wants some kind of big revanche. I think it has started it,” he told the media after meeting with Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen.
His warning came as Russian President Vladimir Putin attended commemoration ceremonies for the Soviet victory over German forces at Stalingrad (now Volgograd) 80 years ago. It was one of the longest and most savage battles of the Second World War, and many historians consider it a turning point of the war in Europe, decisively contributing to the Allied victory over Germany.
Mr. Putin said Russia will be victorious in Ukraine, just as it was in Stalingrad. “Unfortunately we see that the ideology of Nazism in its modern form and manifestation again directly threatens the security of our country,” he said in a speech in Volgograd. “Again and again we have to repel the aggression of the collective West. It’s incredible but it’s a fact: We are again being threatened with German Leopard tanks with crosses on them.”
Mr. Reznikov was in France to secure the purchase of French air-defence radar systems and to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron, part of Ukraine’s campaign to acquire the most lethal NATO-standard weapons as the war grinds on. Mr. Macron has not ruled out sending French-built fighter jets to Ukraine, nor has Poland, whose Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, told German newspaper Bild on Thursday that he is open to the idea of sending some of his country’s American-built F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine.
So far, the United States, Germany and Britain have ruled out sending fighter aircraft of their own.
But several NATO countries, including Germany, the U.S., the U.K., Poland and Canada have agreed to equip Ukraine with dozens of their most advanced main battle tanks, including Leopard 2s, a process that could take several months or longer, raising fears in Ukraine that they will arrive too late to stall the expected Russian offensive.
Mr. Zelensky used a Wednesday evening video address to say that the war in the eastern province of Donetsk was becoming bloodier by the day. “A definite increase has been noted in the offensive operations of the occupiers on the front in the east of our country,” he said. “The situation is becoming tougher.”
“The only way to stop Russian terrorism is to defeat it,” Mr. Zelensky said in a tweet after the attack on Kramatorsk. “By tanks. Fighter jets. Long-range missiles.”
In January, at least 44 people died when a Russian missile hit an apartment building in the city of Dnipro, in central Ukraine.
NATO has not released a new estimate of the Russian troop buildup, but the military alliance’s Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, said this week in South Korea that Mr. Putin retains his “maximalist goals” in Ukraine. “And most of all, we have seen no sign that President Putin has changed his overall goal of this invasion, that is to control a neighbour, to control Ukraine,” he said. “So as long as this is the case, we need to be prepared for the long haul.”
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a think tank in Washington, recently said Russia is getting ready for an “imminent offensive,” citing the information it gathered from Western, Ukrainian and Russian sources.
Mr. Zelensky is expected to make a plea for more Western weapons, including longer-range missiles capable of hitting deep inside Russian-occupied territory, such as Crimea, and tougher sanctions against Russia at the European Union-Ukraine summit in Kyiv on Friday. More than a dozen top EU officials, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, began to arrive in the Ukrainian capital Thursday.
The summit is designed to show the EU’s solidarity with Ukraine but is not expected to make a breakthrough in fast-tracking Ukraine’s EU membership. The EU representatives will probably urge Kyiv to make the reforms required to allow it to qualify for membership at some point.
The EU’s energy support for Ukraine is expected to be on the agenda, as well as continued financial support. The bloc has agreed to provide €18-billion (about $26.1-billion) in support in 2023. Ukraine’s Finance Minister, Sergii Marchenko, has said his country has been running a US$5-billion budget deficit since last March.
There may also be discussions on the Black Sea Grain Initiative, the shipping corridor that was approved earlier this year by the UN, Turkey, Ukraine and Russia. In recent weeks, the flow of grain-laden ships from Ukrainian ports has fallen to two or three a day – a four-month low – reducing exports to poor countries desperate for food supplies. Ukraine blames the intentionally slow work by Russian ship inspection teams for the severe delays.
Canadian sniper in Ukraine describes Russians’ stubborn advance in Bakhmut
Video contains descriptions of combat, fatalities and strong language. Teflon is the callsign for a Canadian veteran who has been operating as a sniper in Ukraine and who saw the intense fighting around Bakhmut over Christmas. He describes the brutal reality of his role as a sniper and the poor tactics employed by Russian forces.
The Globe and Mail