“Everybody’s just waiting,” says Kolya, a 29-year-old officer in the Russian army reserves. “I left the country when they delivered two summons to my house telling me to present for service because I didn’t want to fight in this war. Now, they say they aren’t conscripting anyone else and some people are going back. But they could start again any minute.”
For days, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been embarking on a major shake-up of his military forces, changing top personnel around in an effort to revive his struggling offensive in Ukraine. At the same time, commanders in the field are ploughing thousands of mobilised reservists and prison battalions run by the Wagner Group mercenary outfit onto the front lines in the east of the country. Brutal battles and artillery duels have broken out around the cities of Soledar and Bakhmut, with reports the killing fields are so full of bodies that it’s impossible to even count the dead.
According to Ukrainian intelligence, Putin has issued an ultimatum to the top brass, insisting that they do whatever needs to be done to conquer the remaining areas of the Donbas – which the Kremlin declared in September to be Russian territory after a series of sham referendums. In a briefing on Tuesday, his press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, refused to confirm or deny that the order had been given, but claimed fears of a return to mass mobilization are being “artificially stirred up” from inside and outside the country. With Moscow having previously denied anyone would be drafted at all, many young men like Kolya are wary of the prospect of another round of conscription.
If they want to push back Ukraine’s defenders with sheer manpower, the Russians evidently have a tough job on their hands. In December, the Wagner Group’s top boss, convicted fraudster, catering magnate and Putin confidante, Yevgeny Prigozhin, described Bakhmut as a “meat grinder.” Speaking this month, he went on to say that “every house is a fortress,” showing lines of coffins holding the bloodied remains of his fighters, often former inmates and men lured by the promise of sizeable paychecks.
A new Donbas offensive will unleash yet more death and destruction as part of Putin’s plan to carve up Ukraine, but it could also be a precursor to the Kremlin announcing that its objectives have been met. Having started the war claiming the neighbouring nation would be “demilitarised” and “de-Nazified,” Russia’s spurious goals have since seemingly shifted to taking control of the areas it currently lays claim to – Donetsk and Luhansk in the east, and Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions in the south. While their troops have routed in the latter two areas, failing to hold their regional capitals, the focus is clearly on making gains where they can.
At the same time, to deal with a fresh onslaught of thousands of poorly-trained, ill-equipped Russians, Western nations are stepping up their support for Ukraine. Those defending Bakhmut, the BBC reports, have urged their allies to hand over main battle tanks, one of the few pieces of hardware other countries had been holding back. The UK confirmed over the weekend that it would dispatch 14 Challenger 2 tanks, with EU capitals weighing up the logistics of sending more. Germany, which has been consistently reluctant to fully meet Kyiv’s requests, saw its defence minister resign amid the discussions, with the decision on whether to ship over a fleet of Leopard-2 tanks now falling to the newly appointed Boris Pistorius.
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Meanwhile, much of the world was horrified by the scenes of devastation in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro after a Russian rocket smashed into an apartment building, killing at least 30 people. The attack on a residential area, just the latest in an unfolding campaign of terror being waged by the Kremlin, also damaged energy infrastructure. Yet the fact it was reportedly carried out with an anti-ship missile led to speculation that Moscow is scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to hardware and munitions, while Kyiv is pushing to secure more Western weaponry.
With Putin doubling down on efforts to salvage a “win” from his catastrophic invasion, many fear a long war could be on the cards, even if the weapons his troops use become more primitive and their tactics all the more barbaric. For the time being, Ukrainians are watching the skies and preparing for a spring thaw when, analysts predict, a set of new breakthroughs could change the balance of the conflict once again.
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