Zelensky to address Congress amid rising fears of massive Russian winter offensive
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will make his historic visit to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday at a critical time in his country’s war with Russia, as Ukrainian officials warn Moscow is massing upwards of 200,000 troops for a renewed offensive within the first three months of next year.
Ukraine has urged the United States and other allies to ramp up weapons shipments for the winter fight, a call sure to be reinforced by Zelensky during his visit, which will also include a meeting with President Biden.
Ukrainian forces have appeared to stall out in routing Russian forces from occupied territory since it launched a lightning counter-offensive in September.
“The Russians are preparing some 200,000 fresh troops,” General Valery Zaluzhny, the head of Ukraine’s armed forces, told The Economist. “I have no doubt they will have another go at Kyiv.”
Zaluzhny further told the outlet that Russia could launch its big attack from Donbas in the east, from the south, or even from Belarus.
Zaluzhny said the new offensive could start as soon as January, but more likely in the spring. Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, told The Guardian that some 150,000 reservists called up earlier this year were now nearing the completion of their training.
“It means they are trying to start the next wave of the offensive probably in February, like last year. That’s their plan,” Reznikov said.
Ukrainian officials are concerned that a long, drawn-out war of attrition will degrade U.S. and other international military and economic support for Kyiv.
To keep the momentum going, Congress has proposed $45 billion in emergency funding for Ukraine — exceeding President Biden’s request for nearly $38 billion.
The president is further expected to announce that the U.S. will provide more advanced air defense systems to help Kyiv survive under Russian missile and drone strikes on its energy and electricity infrastructure.
Ukraine’s Ambassador to the U.S., Oksana Markarova, told ABC News on Sunday that Ukraine’s Armed Forces “have to be prepared for everything,” when asked if Kyiv is concerned about a renewed Russian offensive.
“We just have to push back and liberate more,” she said, adding Kyiv and its allies must “continue to stay the course, liberate the territories and defend Ukraine.”
The warnings come as Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday visited Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko — criticized by the U.S. and allies of illegitimately holding power — raising concerns that Russia is looking to relaunch offenses from Belarus or with cooperation of Belarusian forces.
U.S. officials have said they have not seen Belarusian troops fighting alongside Russia, and don’t have information of a pending threat of Belarus sending its military across the border into Ukraine.
Retired Marine Col. Mark Cancian, senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said new offensives appeared likely on both sides in the coming months.
“There’s a widespread expectation that there will be winter offensives, perhaps by both sides, Ukrainians and the Russians,” he said.
“The Ukrainians, also, are not as dismissive of the Russians as many in the West are, when you listen to their generals and officials. They are respectful of their enemy, in the way that many commentators in the West aren’t.”
But other experts, including those at Washington, D.C.-based think tank the Institute for the Study of War, assessed that a Russian offensive over the next few months “remains questionable,” given the capacity of Moscow’s military.
“The manpower Russia is generating from mobilized reservists and from the annual fall conscription cycle will not be sufficiently trained to conduct rapid and effective mechanized maneuver this fall,” ISW researchers wrote in an analysis Sunday, describing struggles to maintain arms supplies of tanks, artillery, long-range missiles and other materials.
“Putin may nevertheless order renewed large-scale offensive operations later this winter, but it is important not to overestimate the likely capabilities of Russian or combined Russo-Belarusian forces to conduct them successfully.”
Also skeptical of a big Russian winter offensive was Michael O’Hanlon, a military analyst at Brookings Institution.
“Last winter their forces were eviscerated when they tried this; why would it go better now?” he told The Hill. “More likely it is a ruse or distraction.”
Ahead of Russia’s February offensive against Ukraine, U.S. officials estimated that Kyiv would fall within 72 hours. Ukrainian forces put up a stiff defense, aided by Russian military failures, and kept the capital city from falling.
Ukrainian officials participated in peace talks with Russian officials towards the end of March as Russia pulled back troops that were in suburbs around Kyiv, but the talks were called off as Ukrainians discovered mass atrocities against civilians in the wake of the retreat.
With U.S. and Western military support, Ukraine has succeeded in liberating nearly 29,000 square miles (74,250 sq km) from the Russians since Moscow first launched its full scale invasion on Feb. 24, according to an ISW analysis.
Responding to Ukrainian ground successes, the Kremlin in October turned to attacking the country from the air — overloading Ukraine’s air defense systems with cruise missiles and Iranian-made drones laden with explosives.
The result has been a devastating impact on Ukraine’s energy and electricity infrastructure, cutting off water, heat and electricity for millions of civilians at a time. Civilians have also been killed in the Russian attacks.
The U.S. and partner countries have condemned the Russian tactic as a potential war crime.
Meanwhile, Putin has worked to bolster his ground forces, announcing in September a “partial mobilization” of 300,000 soldiers.
The order triggered what appeared to be an exodus of more than 100,000 young men from the country seeking to avoid conscription, and it reportedly drew criticisms domestically for snatching young men from the street, and sending ill-trained and ill-equipped soldiers to battle.
Still, CSIS’s Cancian said those recruited are likely ready to fight.
“The Russians, to be fair, they’ve had this partial mobilization, it was chaotic … but it has produced troops and that has strengthened their units, filled them out, so that they do have some capacity for a counteroffensive.”
And the Russians are likely trying to outlast the will of the Ukrainians and their international partners.
“I think Putin’s strategy is to hold on through the winter and hope that the Europeans buckle — that the combination of energy prices, inflation, recession, cause them to demand peace,” Cancian added.
French President Emanuel Macron has been a consistent voice of optimism for peace talks between Ukraine and Russia. Earlier in December he said Ukraine and its supporters must be prepared to address Putin’s demands for security guarantees to what he views are threats from NATO.
However, Cancian and other war experts warn that peace talks or a cease fire while Russia still occupies large swathes of Ukraine could essentially lock in Putin’s gains over the past year without any guarantees of long-term security for Ukraine.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger published his idea for a potential cease fire last week, which envisions a formal agreement between Ukraine and NATO, and popular elections to decide the future of Ukrainian regions occupied by Russia before the war.
Kissinger’s proposal, and an earlier proposition in May, were both roundly rejected by the Ukrainians.
Biden and his officials have said they are following Ukraine’s lead on whether it will continue to pursue a military victory or sue for peace.
“We firmly believe that Ukraine, and only Ukraine, has the right to decide its future,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Monday.
Ellen Mitchell contributed to this report.