KYIV, Ukraine — Moscow has amassed 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 Zelenskyy 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 Gerasimov to take over its struggling war effort. Since then, Moscow has steadily added forces in the 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 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 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.”
A surge in Russian bombardment has accompanied the buildup of forces.
Konrad Muzyka, a military analyst for Rochan Consulting, which tracks Russian deployments, said that reported Russian artillery barrages had risen from an average of about 60 per day four weeks ago to more than 90 per day last week. On one day alone, 111 Ukrainian locations were targeted.
He also said that “the Russians are withdrawing a lot of equipment from storage areas.” Still, he concurred with other analysts who say that Russia will struggle to outfit large numbers of new soldiers with tanks, armored vehicles and other effective equipment.
Andriy Yusov, who represents the intelligence department in Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, said the fighting would most likely intensify.
“We are on the eve of a very active phase,” he said in an appearance on national television. “Both February and March will be intensive.”
How the Kremlin will ultimately deploy its tens of thousands of new fighters is a matter of speculation.
Moscow could be preparing to open a new front, pushing across the Russian border to recapture territory in Sumy or Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine after being driven out months ago, according to Ukrainian officials and military analysts. It might be escalating fighting along the eastern front to divert Ukrainian resources and hurt Kyiv’s ability to launch its own offensive. It could be planning a drive from occupied territory in eastern Ukraine to push deeper into the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, which make up the Donbas.
The only matter of consensus is that Russia is not satisfied with the territory it has taken and is maintaining its ultimate goal of subjugating Ukraine. The intensified assault has continued Russia’s pattern for nearly a year: bleeding the Ukrainian military through relentless attacks.
Oleksii Danilov, the head of Ukraine National Security and Defense Council, told Sky News on Tuesday that he did not rule out “any scenario in the next two or three weeks.”
“The main fights are yet to come,” he said.
Along with barreling down and trying to encircle Bakhmut, Russia in recent weeks has expanded its attacks to hit Ukrainian positions up and down the eastern front, according to the Ukrainian military and Russian military bloggers.
On the northern end of the front, where Russia halted the Ukrainian offensive around the city of Kreminna in the fall, Russian reinforcements now have the Ukrainians on the defensive. Russian and Ukrainian soldiers have posted graphic videos of fierce fighting in the forests close to the city, with the sound of automatic rifle fire and the thuds of mortars shaking the battered limbs of leafless trees.
Elsewhere in the Donbas, the Russians have tried to push back into the city of Lyman, which Ukraine recaptured in October, in one of several recent moves that suggests Moscow may be laying the groundwork for a fresh offensive.
“It cannot be said that there was a large offensive operation, but the Russians are trying to take the initiative,” said Col. Sergei Cherevaty, the spokesperson for Ukraine’s eastern military command, referring to Lyman.
On the southern edge of the Donetsk region in the Donbas, Russia continues to assault the Ukrainian stronghold of Vuhledar, about 60 miles south of Bakhmut. The city is devoid of people but sits at the intersection of the eastern front in the Donetsk region and the southern front in the Zaporizhzhia region, a location that could prove advantageous for Russian forces trying to resupply troops moving between the two fronts.
Even as Russia launches assaults along the east, Ukraine continues to target Russian positions deep behind the front line. Ukrainian officials reported explosions Wednesday around the Russian-occupied city of Mariupol.
After Russian forces besieged and conquered the southern port city in May, they gradually turned it into a major military garrison, according to Ukrainian officials. It is not in range of the missiles Ukraine currently possesses, but Kyiv has been able to strike deep into Russian-occupied territory in the past using drones and other means.