Ukraine, allies brace for the worst as Russia regroups
Russian forces regrouping for an offensive in eastern Ukraine has the international community on edge as the battle is expected to mirror horrific fighting not seen since World War II.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley on Thursday warned there is a “significant battle yet ahead” around Ukraine’s Donbas region, where the Kremlin intends to “mass forces and continue their assault” on the country after failing to take the capital of Kyiv.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk the same day urged civilians in the east to evacuate elsewhere before it was too late.
And in pleading with NATO leaders on Thursday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the battle for the Donbas “will remind you of the second World War with large operations, thousands of tanks, armored vehicles, planes, artillery.”
“This will be a knife fight,” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters Friday. “This could be very bloody and very ugly.”
The fear over the coming battle in Ukraine’s industrial heartland centers around the fact that much of the country’s military has already been fighting in the eastern region, battling with Russian-backed separatists since 2014.
The Kremlin’s plan appears to be to try to cut off those Ukrainian forces and focus all its power on destroying them, effectively splitting the nation in two.
“The Russians are going to be concentrating their available combat power, and they still have the vast majority of their combat power … in a more confined smaller geographic area,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Friday. “Just looking at it on a map, you can see that they will be able to bring to bear a lot more power in a lot more concentrated fashion.”
The expected horrors have seemingly already begun, with shelling by Russian forces intensifying throughout the region on Friday prompting Ukrainian officials to warn the offensive could start “in days.”
In the line of fire Friday were those who wished to escape ahead of the Russian blitz, with at least 50 people killed — including five children — and more than 100 injured by a Kremlin missile attack while waiting to leave at the Kramatorsk train station, according to Ukrainian officials.
The strike quickly drew international condemnation, with Kirby calling it “a piece of Russian brutality in the prosecution of this war and their carelessness for trying to avoid civilian harm.”
The target was also of note due to its location; the major rail hub lies just to the south of Izyum, on the edge of the line of contact between Russian and Ukrainian forces in the Donbas area.
Russian shelling has also continued in Kharkiv in the northeast, and Ukrainian military officials have observed a Russian buildup to the east.
The coming Russian blitz, if it takes shape, would be the second time in nearly 80 years the Donbas becomes the scene of a major, war-shifting battle.
The area was a strategic operation of the Soviet Red Army against Nazi Germany on the Eastern Front of WWII in 1943. The operation to push out the Germans, who had occupied parts of the Donbas area for more than 22 months, was marked by huge tank and armored battles.
The dates of WWII may come into play this time around, with two European officials telling CNN on Friday that the Russians are feeling “self-imposed pressure” to achieve a form of victory by May 9, the day the Kremlin celebrated Victory Day over Germany the better part of a century ago.
“Consolidating and trying to at least have something to talk about is clearly in their interest,” one official told the outlet, adding that the fast, one-month timeline could possibly lead Russian troops to commit more war crimes.
In preparation for the offensive, Kremlin forces have completely withdrawn from positions in the north of Ukraine, around Kyiv and Chernihiv, moving into Belarus and western Russia to be refitted with weapons and supplies.
Western and Ukrainian officials are eyeing, in particular, the Russian town of Valuyki, located just north of the border with the Donbas.
“We have every expectation that, should they refit there, that the most likely course of action would be for them to move immediately south, right into the Donbas right from there,” the defense official said.
And the U.S. has seen indications that Russia is looking to recruit “upwards of 60,000” newly conscripted and reservist troops to reinforce their invasion forces, the defense official said.
But it remains to be seen whether Russia can meet that target, how much training those forces would receive or where they would go, according to the official.
One positive in the situation, according to Kirby, is the Ukrainians’ experience fighting in the Donbas for the last eight years.
“The Ukrainians are certainly familiar with the terrain and the topography and the cities and towns and the roads and the railways. This is our home,” he said. “As we have seen in the last week — certainly over the last several days as the Russians have concentrated more effort there — the Ukrainians are fighting back just as hard and will be working just as hard to continue to defend themselves there.”
It was also revealed Thursday that the U.S. is providing intelligence — in addition to hundreds of millions of dollars of weapons — to Ukrainian forces to help them carry out attacks against Kremlin troops in the area.
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