Russia is seeking to break through Ukrainian lines in the east ahead of the war’s first anniversary later this month
By Matthew Luxmoore and Evan Gershkovich
Feb. 11, 2023
The Wall Street Journal
KYIV, Ukraine—Ukraine said Russia had everything in place to launch a second wave of military mobilization but was waiting to gauge the success of a stepped-up offensive aimed at capturing swaths of territory ahead of the first anniversary of its invasion later this month. “Everything is ready,” the deputy head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Vadym Skibitsky, said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. “The personnel is in place, the lists are ready, the people tasked with carrying out recruitment and training are on standby.”
Russia has in recent weeks been intensifying its attacks on Ukrainian lines of defense in Donetsk and Luhansk, two regions of eastern Ukraine whose capture Russian President Vladimir Putin has set as a priority.
Bolstered by tens of thousands of mobilized troops and convicts recruited into paramilitary units fighting alongside the regular armed forces, Russia has made limited gains in recent weeks after months on the back foot. Russian forces have surrounded the city of Bakhmut in Donetsk from three sides, as Ukrainian troops continue to defend it at a significant cost to both armies.
Kyiv, meanwhile, has continued to call for greater Western support as it aims to repel the Russian push and succeed in its own offensives to retake land. In his nightly address on Friday, President Volodymyr Zelensky said his diplomatic tour of Europe this week had yielded pledges of further military aid from Ukraine’s key allies. “It’s not correct to reveal details, but it seems we understood one another,” he said of his conversations with the leaders of France and Germany. “Our partners heard our positions and our arguments. There will be more support.”
A mobilization drive launched by Mr. Putin at the end of September added more than 300,000 soldiers to Russia’s fighting force and has allowed Russia to make its first gains in months, using a sheer advantage in numbers to send wave upon wave of troops on often near-suicidal offensives on Bakhmut and elsewhere, in a tactic that has baffled Ukrainian troops defending that city and seeking to minimize their own losses.
Earlier this week, Wagner Group, a paramilitary force that has led the assault on Bakhmut, said it had stopped recruiting convicts from Russia’s prisons who had helped give Moscow a manpower advantage in the area. In a video interview released late Friday, the group’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said it could take up to another two years for Russia to capture the entirety of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and up to three if the Kremlin decides to seize territories east of the Dnipro River. “The Russian leadership faces the difficult choice of either continuing to deplete its forces, scale back objectives, or conduct a further form of mobilization,” the U.K.’s Defense Ministry said Saturday. Russian officials have repeatedly denied a new mobilization is imminent.
Maj. Gen. Skibitsky said that even if Russia forges ahead with a new round of mobilization, it will likely suffer from the same issues the previous wave brought to light, including shortages of modern equipment in good working order and a sufficient number of officers capable of preparing the vast influx of untrained men. “They’re preparing for a second wave of mobilization but our assessment is that they’ll hold off because they haven’t overcome all the difficulties they experienced during the first wave,” he said. “They were not ready for such a large-scale mobilization at the time, and they aren’t now.”
Russia has made some advances in recent days around Bakhmut and the western edge of Vuhledar to the south. Those gains have continued to come at a steep cost for Russia, however, with one failed assault near Vuhledar this week likely leading to heavy casualties and forcing Russia to abandon at least 30 armored vehicles, the U.K. said.
In a report published on Friday, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said the incident near Vuhledar testified to incompetence among Russian soldiers that were mobilized in the first wave. “The systemic poor training of Russian mobilized personnel will likely continue to result in similar tactical failures throughout Ukraine,” he concluded.
In parallel to its attempts to break through Ukrainian lines in the east, Russia has continued to launch missile attacks on Ukrainian territory. The country’s air force said it had downed 20 Iranian-made drones launched by Russia on Friday evening from the eastern coast of the Azov Sea, following a nationwide rocket barrage on Friday. Residents of Kyiv could hear air defenses working late into the night.
Ukraine’s southern military command on Saturday said two Russian Su-24 jet fighters had dropped four bombs on Snake Island in the Black Sea, an outcrop of rock that has changed hands twice since the war started. Russian military bloggers expressed hope that could signal a renewed attempt by Moscow to set conditions for another attack on the major port city of Odesa.
Also on Saturday, the governor of Russia’s southern Belgorod region, Vyacheslav Gladkov, wrote on the Telegram messaging app that drones struck a facility in the Yakovlevsky district and Ukraine’s armed forces shelled the village of Murom and the town of Shebekino near the border. The shelling damaged several buildings and injured three men, he said.
Russia regularly uses bases around the Belgorod border region to strike Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which Moscow tried and failed to seize last year.