KIEV—Ukraine is preparing for a new major offensive which could begin in a few weeks. One of of President Zelensky key insiders told The Daily Beast that they expect a impending Russian move to encircle the country with a simultaneous attack on three fronts.
Rustem Umerov, a member of the negotiating team with Russia, said the Kremlin was preparing for a new push that could start as early as February. The assault is believed to come from the north, across the Belarusian border, from Russian strongholds in eastern Ukraine, and from the south, where Crimea’s Black Sea peninsula was seized by Vladimir Putin’s forces in 2014 and the neighboring towns of Melitopol and Zaporizhzhia are now also under Russian control.
“The Russians surround us at 240 degrees, attacking from the Black Sea, from Belarus and the Luhansk and Donetsk regions,” Umerov said.
Russia declared its first victory in the war in months this week, saying it had captured the salt mining town of Soledar in Donetsk. There is still some dispute over whether fighting continues for control of the city, but the Russians have clearly made territorial gains, at enormous cost.
Mercenary fighters working for Wagner, Putin’s private army, led the charge on Soledar and the nearby town of Bakhmut. Fighters recruited from Russian prisons were key to the attack; The Daily Beast reported that their fearless advances towards near-certain death helped the Russians identify pockets of Ukrainian resistance.
“They come from all directions, with three battle lines: criminals, private contractors and regular forces. Their goals are to get rid of their criminals, test and train their contractors,” Umerov said.
Ukrainian intelligence and defense experts believe that it is the preparation for a large-scale ground offensive, reinforced by more recruits in the regular army.
Colonel Oleh Zhdanov, a former staff member of the Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, told The Daily Beast that Ukrainian military and intelligence units track Russian troop movements in real time.
“We are watching Russia build many forces in the Zaporizhzhia region. Looks like they are planning a pincer attack from Kharkiv [in the east] and Zaporizhzhia [in the south] directions, they will try to capture all the main Ukrainian defense forces,” Zhdanov told The Daily Beast. “We also observe that the Russian army is constantly moving 10-12 thousand men into Belarus [to the north]. They are also gaining strength in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
Colonel Zhdanov says there is only one man in the world who knows when the war in Ukraine will end: President Joe Biden. He believes the war will continue until the White House approves all the additional military firepower requested by Ukraine.
“President Biden has a detailed scenario of this war in the White House. The sooner we have weapons, the sooner we will end the war, but it seems the United States wants Russia to exhaust itself with all its war efforts,” Zhdanov told The Daily Beast. “In Russia, they now have a death cult: at all levels, from propagandists to the Orthodox patriarch, Russians are called to go and die in this war, as their grandfathers died in previous wars.”
According to the latest Levada Center polls, the number of Russians who think the country “should definitely continue military actions in Ukraine” has abandoned at 23 percent. And so, Putin is updating his rhetoric. He no longer speaks ofunitof the Ukrainian and Russian peoples. The Kremlin has given up on calling on Russians to die for the ancient legacy of Kievan Rus. Instead, they present this war as a mighty battle against NATO.
On Saturday, his top adviser Nikolai Patrushev said: “The events in Ukraine are not a clash between Moscow and Kyiv; it is a military confrontation between NATO, and especially the United States and England, with Russia.
Both Putin and Patrushev graduated from Soviet KGB schools. They have always viewed the United States and its allies as enemies worth destroying at all costs.
Ukraine knows full well that it faces the wrath of this decade-old conflict with NATO.
Umerov, who also heads the State Property Fund, said Russian missiles and ground attacks had already destroyed or stolen property worth more than $127 billion. The violence has wiped out Ukrainian businesses. To try to compensate for losses and develop Ukraine’s resources, the state is now selling off state-owned companies, but this is far from enough. They need increased investment from the West.
Ukraine lacks ammunition and weapons. “We are fighting the Russians with our bare hands,” Umerov said.
One of Ukraine’s problems is a lack of air defense systems, but they hope an announced wave of Western military aid will help change that.
A Russian Kh-22 missile destroyed more than 70 apartments last Saturday, killing at least 44 people including four children, in the city of Dnipro in south-central Ukraine. “The screams of the victims in the debris on the videos of the disaster still echo in my head,” Yulia Mashuta, editor of Svoi.City newspapers, told The Daily Beast earlier this week.
Besides the civilians killed, a monstrous number of Ukrainian soldiers also perished.
A field of small blue and yellow national flags sprang up in Kyiv’s central square, known as Maidan. Each flag is inscribed with the name of a dead soldier. Passing by this week, Olena Zinchenko, an engineer, donated her change to volunteers collecting money for the army: “It’s for our defenders,” she said. She took a small blue and yellow ribbon from a volunteer and wrapped it around her wrist.
With tears in her eyes, she looked at the little flags on the ground. “Putin knows he can only stay in prison as long as he fights this war, so he won’t stop attacking us as long as he’s alive,” Zinchenko told The Daily Beast. “Russia is mobilizing more soldiers, there is no end to this hell.”