Russia is preparing to mount a major offensive in the first couple of months of 2023 while it continues to attack Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, Kyiv said Tuesday, as Western governments pledged to help repair the country’s shattered power and water systems.
Speaking to reporters from a bomb shelter in central Kyiv, Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Russia has been unable to regain momentum after Ukrainian forces took back control of Kherson in November. But his government believes Russian President Vladimir Putin will insist on a breakthrough shortly.
“I think the Russian capability to conduct a large offensive may be restored somewhere by the end of January, February, but that is what they are trying to do,” Mr. Kuleba said. “In the best-case scenario [for Russia], taking the mobilization, the conscription they have announced, and the training of new conscripts and the movement of heavy weapons across the country, they definitely still keep hopes that they will be able to break through our lines and advance deeper in Ukraine.”
The Ukrainian government’s view is similar to NATO’s. Earlier this month, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he believes Russia is trying to “freeze” the war “to regroup and launch a bigger offensive later on,” though he did not say when he thought that might happen.
Mr. Kuleba was speaking about two hours after air-raid sirens went off across the country. But no attacks were reported, and Ukrainian media said the warnings may have been triggered by Russian MiG fighter jets taking off from Ryazan, close to Russia’s border with Ukraine, and flying toward Belarus.
Mr. Kuleba said Ukraine’s immediate concern was restoring electricity to the whole country after six Russian missile barrages on crucial infrastructure since Oct. 10.
“The aim is to destroy the Ukrainian energy system and leave millions of people without access to power, water and heating amid freezing temperatures,” he said. “Putin hopes that without power, water and heating, Ukrainians will stop resisting and accept Russian ultimatums, but this is a grave miscalculation. Russian missile terror will not break Ukraine down.”
He called a Paris aid conference to raise emergency funds to get Ukraine through the winter a “huge success.”
French Foreign Affairs Minister Catherine Colonna said that more than €1-billion ($1.44-billion) was pledged by 46 countries and 24 international organizations at Tuesday’s event. The money would be spent on repairing energy and water networks and restoring the health, transportation and food sectors. “It is aid, or gifts in kind. It is not loans,” she said.
Canada announced a $115-million donation to Ukraine Tuesday for repairs to the country’s electrical grid. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said Ottawa will finance the amount from the 35-per-cent tariff it levied on imports from Russia and Belarus earlier this year. Since the start of the war in February, Canada has sent $2-billion in direct aid to Ukraine and committed $500-million through the issue of government-backed bonds.
Appearing via video link at the Paris conference, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said his country needed an extra €800-million ($1.15-billion) to survive the winter and €1.5-billion ($2.16-billion) to fix the long-term damage to the power system. He made a plea for diesel generators to keep the lights on. “Every day our engineers have to disconnect millions of Ukrainians for these repairs,” he said. “Currently, there are 12 million [disconnected]. And every day we expect new Russian strikes. That’s why the generators have become as important as armour to protect the population.”
Mr. Kuleba in effect admitted that Ukraine is depleting its weapons stockpiles alarmingly fast as the missile and artillery assaults on both sides continue.
He made a plea not only for long-range missiles but for the 155mm field artillery that is one of the mainstays of Ukraine’s ground forces for both defensive and offensive action.
“The weapon we need most is more of the 155mm howitzers,” he said. “This war is largely an artillery war, and Russia still dominates on the battlefield on the amount of cannons it is using and the number of shells these cannons are firing.”
To help stop the expected Russian offensive in January or February, Mr. Kuleba said, Ukraine needs the 155mm weapons to destroy Russian targets in occupied Ukrainian territories.