KYIV—Ukraine is braced for a major new offensive that could begin within weeks. One of President Zelensky’s key insiders told The Daily Beast that they expect a looming Russian move to encircle the country with a simultaneous attack on three fronts.
Rustem Umerov, a member of the team negotiating with Russia, said the Kremlin was preparing for a fresh advance which could begin as soon as February. The assault would come from the north, over the Belarusian border, from the Russian strongholds in the east of Ukraine, and from the south, where the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea was seized by Vladimir Putin’s forces in 2014 and nearby cities of Melitopol and Zaporizhzhia are now also under Russian control.
“Russians are encircling us from 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 for months this week, claiming they had taken the salt-mining town of Soledar in Donetsk. There is still some dispute as to whether fighting continues for control of the town but the Russians have clearly made territorial gains—at a huge cost.
Mercenary fighters working for Wagner, Putin’s private army, have led the charge on Soledar and the nearby city of Bakhmut. Fighters recruited from Russian prisons were key to the onslaught; The Daily Beast reported that their fearless advances towards near-certain death helped the Russians identify pockets of Ukrainian resistance.
“They are coming from all directions, with three lines of fighting: criminals, private contractors, and regular forces. Their goals are to get rid of their criminals, to test and train their contractors,” Umerov said.
Ukrainian intelligence and defense experts believe that it is all preparation for a large-scale ground offensive, bolstered by more recruits to the regular army.
Colonel Oleh Zhdanov, a former staffer in the operational directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, told The Daily Beast that Ukraine’s military and intelligence units are tracking the movement of Russian troops in real time.
“We are watching Russia build lots of forces in the Zaporizhzhia region. It looks like they are planning a pincer attack from Kharkiv [in the east] and Zaporizhzhia [in the south] directions, they will attempt to capture all of Ukraine’s major defense forces,” Zhdanov told The Daily Beast. “We are also watching Russian military constantly moving 10-12,000 men in Belarus [to the north]. They are also reinforcing 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 that the war will go on until the White House signs off on all of the additional military firepower Ukraine is requesting.
“President Biden has a detailed scenario of this war in the White House. The sooner we get weapons the sooner we finish the war, but it looks like the U.S. wants Russia to exhaust itself with all of its war efforts,” Zhdanov told The Daily Beast. “In Russia they now have a cult of death: on 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 most recent polls by the Levada center, the number of Russians who believe the country “should definitely continue military actions in Ukraine” has dropped to 23 percent. And so, Putin is updating his rhetoric. He no longer talks about the “unity” of Ukrainian and Russian peoples. The Kremlin has given up on calling for Russians to die for the ancient Kievan Rus heritage. Instead, they are casting 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; this is a military confrontation between NATO, and above all the United States and England, with Russia.”
Putin and Patrushev are both graduates of Soviet KGB schools. They have always seen the United States and its allies as enemies worth destroying at all costs.
Ukraine knows full well it is facing the wrath of that decade-old conflict with NATO.
Umerov, who is also the head of State Property Fund, said Russian missiles and land attacks have already destroyed or stolen property worth more than $127 billion. The violence has wiped out Ukrainian business. To try to compensate for the losses and build Ukraine’s resources, the state is now selling off state-owned companies, but that is nowhere near enough. They need an increase in investment from the West.
Ukraine lacks ammunition and weapons. “We fight the Russians with bare knuckles,” Umerov said.
One of Ukraine’s problems is a lack of air defense systems, but they are hoping a flood of Western military aid being announced will help to change that.
A Russian Kh-22 missile destroyed more than 70 apartments, killing at least 44 people including four children, in the south-central Ukrainian city of Dnipro last Saturday. “The screams of victims in the debris on the videos of the catastrophe are still ringing in my head,” Yulia Mashuta, editor at Svoi.City newspapers, told The Daily Beast earlier this week.
As well as the civilian deaths, a monstrous number of Ukrainian soldiers have also perished.
A field of little blue and yellow national flags has been growing in Kyiv’s central square, known as the Maidan. Each flag is inscribed with the name of a dead soldier. Walking past this week, Olena Zinchenko, an engineer, donated her change to volunteers collecting money for the army: “This is for our defenders,” she said. She took a small blue and yellow ribbon from a volunteer and twirled it around her wrist.
With eyes full of tears, she looked at the little flags on the ground. “Putin knows he can stay out of jail only for as long as he is fighting this war, so he is not going to stop attacking us for as long as he is alive,” Zinchenko told The Daily Beast. “Russia is mobilizing more soldiers, there is no end to this hell.”