Russia is preparing for massive winter offensive in Ukraine, including new run on Kyiv
Ukrainian and Western intelligence believe Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing new assaults to try to force Kyiv into negotiations.
The top commander of Ukraine’s armed forces said this week he expects the new winter offensive would take place at least by March starting somewhere in Ukraine’s east – the epicenter of Russia’s latest offensives after losing key territory in the north and south. It could also originate from staging positions in Belarus, despite the key Russian ally’s attempts to distance itself from President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Valery Zaluzhny said he has “no doubt they will have another go at Kyiv.”
The Ukrainian general’s assessment matches concerns from U.S. and other Western military officials. They have warned in recent days that Putin appears eager to regain momentum – and force Kyiv to the negotiating table – at a time that troops loyal to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, bolstered by their Western backers, appear more prepared than ever to fight to retake their territory.
Indeed, American officials have indicated recently that they believe Ukraine has maintained and strengthened its position to a point that it may retake strategically critical territory Russia has seized. NBC News reported Friday that unnamed Biden administration officials briefed Congress in late November on intelligence that suggests Ukrainian forces now have the ability to push Russian troops out of the Crimean Peninsula, even though that does not appear to be a near-term priority for Kyiv. And Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, similarly briefed members of Congress on Thursday as the war in Ukraine reaches its 10-month mark.
“It's incredible how resilient the Ukrainian people are. They're going to fight through this winter. They're going to continue fighting Russia, and with our assistance, they're going to win this war,” a conspicuously upbeat Rep. Seth Moulton, Massachusetts Democrat who recently returned from participating in a small congressional delegation to Kyiv, told CNN after the briefing.
The latest concerns about Russia’s intentions follow its twin campaigns of attempting to regain territory in the east, a region known as the Donbas that it first invaded in 2014 using particularly aggressive artillery and bombing campaigns, combined with attacking Ukrainian energy infrastructure, depriving civilians of heat and other utilities in an apparent attempt to crush public support for continuing the war.
Russia on Friday launched a particularly large barrage of rockets and missiles at Kyiv, prompting Zelenskyy to issue a video statement shortly afterward.
“They still have enough rockets for several such massive strikes,” Zelenskyy said in his native language while wearing a sweatshirt with “I’m Ukrainian” in English. “We will have enough determination and faith in ourselves to still take back what is ours.”
The efforts have so far failed to undermine the Ukrainian government and force it to reconsider peace negotiations for a nearly year-long war that Putin’s top advisers originally thought would end gloriously for Moscow within days.
“Putin may therefore be setting conditions for a third, sequential military effort in the likely event that these two efforts fail to secure his objectives by preparing for a renewed offensive against Ukraine in the winter of 2023,” the independent Institute for the Study of War, which has tracked Russian military movements since its invasion on Feb. 24, concluded in a new analysis note.
It notes the alignment of the training of hundreds of thousands of conscript forces that Putin pressed into service earlier this year and moving them along with heavy equipment to the front lines. These maneuvers, combined with Moscow’s latest campaigns, indicate preparations for some sort of major movement in the early months of next year.
Though the attack is not imminent, the institute, along with others, believes the new campaign is “extraordinarily unlikely to succeed.”
“A renewed Russian offensive from the north, including one that involves Belarus joining the war, is possible but still unlikely due to resource constraints and the high risk involved with such an operation,” private intelligence firm RANE concluded in a new analysis.
It also speculated that Zaluzhny may have specified Belarus in his latest warning to show publicly that Ukraine is concerned about the movement of Russian troops there and to give Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko cover to push back against the deployments of any new Russian forces to territory he controls.
The new concerns come at a consequential time for Ukraine’s Western backers. The U.S. as of this week is reportedly preparing to introduce highly sophisticated Patriot missile defense batteries to Ukraine, a move that many American officials and military analysts believe would provide a dramatic practical and psychological boost for Ukraine – while also enraging the Kremlin.
Others observe that despite Russia’s latest acts of aggression, its military remains fundamentally unprepared to convert its large numbers into meaningful battlefield victories.
British military intelligence revealed Friday morning that new imagery shows Russian forces have focused on establishing defensive positions along its front lines using outdated tactics, chiefly through entrenchment akin to that used on World War II battlefields.
“The construction of major defense lines is further illustration of Russia’s reversion to positional warfare that has largely been abandoned by most modern Western militaries in recent decades,” it assesses.