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Ukrainian border guards are seen at their positions near the border with Belarus, in Volyn region, Ukraine.GLEB GARANICH/Reuters

Ukraine is bracing for a fresh Russian offensive this spring that the besieged country’s defence establishment believes could prove pivotal to the outcome of the war.

The recent announcement that Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, was taking direct command of the invasion is seen by Ukrainian officials as a harbinger of a renewed Russian attempt to seize ground in Ukraine. The new assault is expected to focus on the south and southeast of the country – territories that Russian President Vladimir Putin claims to have annexed to the Russian Federation – although a renewed effort to capture Kyiv could also be part of the plan.

A senior Ukrainian security official told The Globe and Mail that Russia’s larger army, and its larger pool of potential conscripts, means the invaders could continue to press forward in the eastern Donbas region – where much of the Ukrainian military is engaged in a bloody battle over the city of Bakhmut and the nearby town of Soledar – while simultaneously building up another force for a new assault.

“They have bigger potential in manpower, so they can use troops daily, conducting this offensive operation, and keep armies in reserve to prepare this much bigger offensive operation,” said the official, whom The Globe is not identifying because he was not authorized to publicly discuss military strategy.

He said that, in addition to the estimated 200,000 Russian conscripts who have been mobilized in recent months but have not yet been deployed into Ukraine, regular army units were moving west from their usual positions in Russia’s Far East. Among them is the powerful 36th Combined Arms Army, which is normally stationed near Lake Baikal in Siberia.

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Russian forces are expected to be in position to launch the new attack by March, shortly after the Feb. 24 anniversary of the start of the invasion.

The most likely thrust of the offensive is an even larger push to capture the entire Donbas region, including the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, which would achieve one of Mr. Putin’s initial war aims. Bakhmut, a key transportation hub, and Soledar, a small salt-mining town, are both in Donetsk.

Another potential axis of attack would be a new effort to capture the southern regions of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, which Mr. Putin claimed in a September speech to have annexed along with Donetsk and Luhansk.

“The Russians are not ready to admit that they can’t solve and attain political goals by military methods, and since they are not ready to admit it, they are trying to improve their hand by raising another army,” said Mykola Bielieskov, a military analyst at the Kyiv-based National Institute for Strategic Studies. Mr. Bielieskov said the spring attack could be larger than what Ukraine faced at the start of the war, again targeting multiple regions at once.

Another Russian offensive toward Kyiv is seen as possible, due to the presence of some 15,000 Russian troops training in neighbouring Belarus. Mr. Putin is also believed to be pressuring Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko to join the war on the Russian side.

Mr. Bielieskov said that even if Belarusian forces were to join the invasion, there still wouldn’t be enough troops to capture the Ukrainian capital, though an attack on Kyiv could serve to “pin down Ukrainian forces and to create a window of opportunity somewhere else.”

The outcome of the new offensive “will be very visible by April or May,” the security official said. What happens afterward “depends on what the result will be and what potential they keep after this period of heavy fighting.”

The official said Ukraine needs more help from its Western allies – in the form of tanks, artillery and long-range rocket systems – to withstand the coming offensive. A U.S. transfer of Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS), weapons the Biden administration has thus far been reluctant to supply, would be “very useful,” since their 300-kilometre range would allow Ukraine to disable rail lines and strike at the new Russian units before they deploy.

Another key armament would be battle tanks, to allow Ukraine to mount a new offensive of its own. While both Poland and Britain promised this week to send tanks to Ukraine, the numbers being discussed – a dozen Leopard 2 tanks from Poland and 10 Challenger 2 tanks from Britain – are unlikely to have a significant impact on the battlefield. Ukraine has said it needs 300 Western tanks to completely drive the Russian army off its soil.

The official said he was aware that some in the West believe Ukraine has already received enough military support. “The civilian West, if I can say it like that, already thinks, ‘We sent some hundreds of barrels to Ukraine, it should be enough.’ Come on, it’s a war. Some are destroyed in fighting. Some broke,” he said, referring to the barrels of artillery pieces from countries such as Canada. “It was not enough, and it is not enough.”

Russia’s Defence Ministry claimed Friday that it was in control of Soledar. A spokesman for Russia’s military said the advance would allow its forces “to cut supply lines for the Ukrainian forces” in nearby Bakhmut and then “block and encircle the Ukrainian units there.”

Ukraine, however, insisted that the town – which was home to 10,000 people before the war – was still being contested. The security official told The Globe that Ukrainian troops were largely positioned in the hills and forests west of Soledar but still able to stage hit-and-run raids into the town.

Taking Soledar would bolster the Russian siege of Bakhmut, though Ukrainian troops still hold the city, which had a prewar population of 70,000. The security official said Russia’s casualties in and around Bakhmut were far higher than Ukraine’s, but Russian troops – who have been trying to take the city since August – continued to press forward despite their losses.

Mr. Bielieskov said the lesson of the battles for Soledar and Bakhmut is that Russia’s “human wave” attacks have been bloody but successful. Russian commanders, he said, push poorly trained conscripts – as well as former convicts recruited into the Wagner Group private army – forward in such numbers that they occasionally overwhelm Ukrainian defences. Then better-trained Russian troops, along with artillery and armour, advance over the scorched landscape.

“The worrying thing is that we see that this tactic of human waves works. Yes, it’s a horrible thing, and it’s very difficult to believe in the 21st century that this tactic is employed. But it’s working.”

Mr. Bielieskov said the battle for Soledar – which he conceded Ukraine had “lost” – had shaken Ukraine’s military out of the “complacency” that had set in after its successful counteroffensives in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions late last year. Now, he said, it is clear that the Russian army is far from defeated – and that Ukraine will need yet more help from its allies to withstand what’s coming.

“There is no other way that we can confront this mass, except with improvements in firepower,” he said. “There is still this window of opportunity for people to understand what’s going on, what might happen, and to take some steps. And not to say afterward that, ‘Oh well, we didn’t manage to anticipate something like this.’”

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