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Ukraine Fears New Offensive Is Underway as Russia Masses Troops – The New York Times – 02.02.23

Russia is massing hundreds of thousands of troops and stepping up its bombardment, perhaps signaling the biggest assault since the start of the war. “I think it has started,” Ukraine’s leader says.

KYIV, Ukraine — Moscow has massed hundreds of thousands of troops in Ukraine and is targeting dozens of places a day in a markedly stepped-up barrage of artillery attacks. Ukrainian forces are struggling to hold their ground on a 140-mile stretch in the east, awaiting tanks, armored vehicles and other weapons systems from the West.

Ukrainian officials have been bracing for weeks for a new Russian offensive that could rival the opening of the war. Now, they are warning that the campaign is underway, with the Kremlin seeking to reshape the battlefield and seize the momentum.

“I think it has started,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said this week.

Along the undulating front line in eastern Ukraine, artillery never goes silent for long. The roads in Ukrainian-held areas are largely empty, except for tanks and armored personnel carriers and huge trucks filled with boxes of ammunition. The few gas stations still operating are crowded with soldiers savoring hot coffee before returning to the fight.

Hospitals near the front lines are busy, but not overflowing. At one major triage hospital, there are long stretches of quiet and then, suddenly, a parade of ambulances arrives, filling the corridors with wounded soldiers in various stages of consciousness.

Fierce fighting is concentrated around the forlorn eastern city of Bakhmut, where Russian forces have been slowly closing in on vital supply lines. Before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine almost a year ago, Bakhmut had a population of about 70,000 people. But most of those living in the battered city fled long ago, and on Tuesday night the mayor, Oleksiy Reva, pleaded with the roughly 6,500 who remained to evacuate.

“The city is under constant hostile fire,” he said in a statement. “The enemy does not spare anyone! How much will you ignore the danger?!”

Ukraine and Russia have been locked in grueling combat for nearly a year. Since the fall, when Ukraine reclaimed territory through counteroffensives in the northeast and south, the fight in the east has congealed into muddy and frozen trenches, each army facing significant losses while managing only negligible gains.

Both sides have been readying for heavier ground combat, with Moscow pressing its goal to capture the entire Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and Kyiv aiming to drive Russian troops out of the country completely.

The Russian approach shifted last month after the Kremlin named Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov to take over its struggling war effort. Since then, Moscow has steadily added forces in Donbas, seeking to do with overwhelming manpower what it has so far failed to do with firepower: break through lines that have been fortified for nine years, going back to when Russia first fomented rebellion in Ukraine’s east.

Ukrainian intelligence estimates that Russia now has more than 320,000 soldiers in the country — roughly twice the size of Moscow’s initial invasion force. Western officials and military analysts have said that Moscow also has 150,000 to 250,000 soldiers in reserve, either training or being positioned inside Russia to join the fight at any time.

“We see that they are preparing for more war, that they are mobilizing more soldiers, more than 200,000, and potentially even more than that,” NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, told reporters during a visit to South Korea on Monday. “They are actively acquiring new weapons, more ammunition, ramping up their own production, but also acquiring more weapons from other authoritarian states like Iran and North Korea.”

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Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting.

Marc Santora is the International News Editor based in London, focusing on breaking news events. He was previously the Bureau Chief for East and Central Europe based in Warsaw. He has also reported extensively from Iraq and Africa.


Michael Schwirtz is an investigative reporter with the International desk. With The Times since 2006, he previously covered the countries of the former Soviet Union from Moscow and was a lead reporter on a team that won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for articles about Russian intelligence operations. @mschwirtzFacebook

A version of this article appears in print on Feb. 2, 2023, Section A, Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: Ukraine Fears New Offensive Is Underway. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Ukrainian forces digging a trench near Bakhmut on Wednesday. Credit...Yasuyoshi Chiba/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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