'It has started': Russia prepares new Ukraine offensive as Western allies approve more weapons

The United States announced Friday that it would send ground-launched small-diameter bombs to Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin
President Vladimir Putin at a ceremony commemorating the heroes of the Battle of Stalingrad, in Volgograd, Russia, Feb. 2. (Getty Images)

“We are again being threatened by German Leopard tanks,” Russian President Vladimir Putin declared Thursday on a visit to Volgograd, where he commemorated the 80th anniversary of the Red Army’s World War II victory over Nazi forces in Stalingrad.

As he so often has in the past year, Putin made a direct comparison between his attempted conquest of Ukraine and what Russians refer to as the Great Patriotic War. “Again and again we are forced to repel the aggression of the collective West,” he said.

Also in characteristic fashion, Putin got his facts wrong. The Nazis never operated a tank named after the leopard during World War II. As for the “collective West,” no mention was made of Joseph Stalin’s invasion of Poland 16 days after Adolf Hitler’s, as per their mutually agreed carve-up of Eastern Europe, which culminated in a joint victory parade between German and Soviet armies in Brest-Litovsk on Sept. 22, 1939.

Putin’s revisionist history comes as Russia is said to be prepping for a massive offensive in Ukraine, possibly to coincide with the one-year anniversary of its Feb. 24 invasion.

“I think that Russia really wants some kind of big revanche. I think it has started it. And I think that they will not be able to provide their society with any convincing positive result in the offensive,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said at a Friday press conference in Odesa with Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov has suggested that the Kremlin may be deploying as many as half a million soldiers for the effort, more than twice the original number fielded a year ago to mount the initial invasion. One unnamed source in the Russian military interviewed by the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta confirmed that a massive push is in the offing, although the source seemed skeptical that it would be successful. Russian generals, the source said, had no compunction about turning tens of thousands of their own men into “mincemeat.” The Ukrainians, moreover, “get absolutely accurate information about all of our movements from Western intelligence agencies.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv on Friday. (Yan Dobronosov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

Last month, Russia reshuffled its war leadership, appointing Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff, the overall commander of forces in Ukraine, and demoting his predecessor, Gen. Sergey Surovikin to one of three deputies. The British Defense Ministry called this move “an indicator of the increasing seriousness of the situation Russia is facing, and a clear acknowledgement that the campaign is falling short of Russia’s strategic goals.” Gerasimov, along with the Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, has been serially assailed by Russian hawks and ultra-nationalists for the military’s poor performance in Ukraine so far. He is therefore thought to be under enormous political pressure to deliver some kind of tangible victory for Putin in the short term.

But for all the talk of an impending massive attack, there’s little visual evidence of one. Recent satellite footage does not show any new major buildup of Russians soldiers and materiel along either the Russian or Belarusian borders. What this suggests is that Moscow may simply be funneling newly mobilized soldiers into existing fronts, with no provision of the additional armor and artillery necessary for combined arms warfare. In other words, raw meat for the grinder.

One Estonian military analyst, who asked to remain anonymous, told Yahoo News this week that the rumored Russian offensive is likely already underway. “I am moderately confident that Russia itself already thinks it is conducting it,” the source said, adding that Putin is probably reluctant to announce another major mobilization effort so long as Russian losses do not approach those experienced during the hasty and humiliating withdrawal from Kharkiv last September. “I am doubtful how good a picture Putin has about the status and readiness of [his] units.”

A Ukrainian serviceman holds a portrait of his brother-in-arms Volodymyr Androshchuk
A Ukrainian serviceman holds a portrait of his brother-in-arms who was recently killed in a fight against Russian troops near Bakhmut. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

The epicenter of the fighting in the country right now is Bakhmut, a city of less strategic importance than symbolic value for both Kyiv and Moscow. Bakhmut currently remains in Ukrainian hands but is under increasingly heavy assault from a Russian force buoyed by tens of thousands of newly mobilized Russian conscripts and unknown numbers of mercenaries, many of them recently released convicts. Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former convict himself and a Russian catering magnate, finances the Wagner Group, Russia’s infamous private military company which has just been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department as a transnational criminal organization.

One U.S. official told Yahoo News that Prigozhin sets enormous stock in taking Bakhmut, and that the oligarch appears to be parlaying gains on a foreign battlefield into an aspirational political role reminiscent of Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani before his assassination by the United States in Baghdad in 2020. Along with Ramzan Kadyrov, the ruler of the semi-autonomous republic of Chechnya, Prigozhin has been outspoken on Telegram in his attacks on Gerasimov and Shoigu for their handling of the war. He routinely depicts Wagner as the only fit and courageous cadre of warriors on Russia’s side, an assessment many Russian military bloggers agree with. As a billionaire patron of guns-for-hire with no military background, Prigozhin evinces no concern for Wagner’s catastrophic losses in Bakhmut. Indeed, Prigozhin has only disdain for mercenaries who don’t fall in battle but get captured, having celebrated the retaliatory murder with a sledgehammer of one of his own employees, a returned prisoner of war, by the man’s comrades.

Still, Wagner and the Russian army are slowly making headway. They captured the salt mining city of Soledar, directly north of Bakhmut, on Jan. 16 and are making inroads to the south in an attempt to sever the Ukrainian supply lines keeping the city’s defenders fighting.

Russian forces have also been looking to gain ground around Vuhledar, in southern Donetsk, using the multiple-launch rocket system TOS-1A to bombard the city still solidly in Kyiv’s hands. Yet Ukrainian and Russian military sources have said that the push for Vuhledar only led to heavy casualties for the Russian army, a claim that appeared to be confirmed by images posted on social media of dead bodies and destroyed equipment. As noted by the Estonian military analyst, the last time the Russians made a serious play for Vuhledar was several months ago. That too was a rout. They lost two naval battalions in three days. Ukraine, meanwhile, has been slowly advancing in Kreminna, north of Bakhmut.

In Luhansk, the only local cellphone provider informed subscribers that all mobile internet services would be suspended as of Feb. 11, a move widely believed to be intended to stop local Ukrainians from sharing pictures of Russian forces assembled in the area. Luhansk, along with its neighboring oblast Donetsk, are the two regions of Ukraine that were first occupied by a hodgepodge of Russian warlords, mercenaries, spies and regulars in 2014, not long after the takeover of Crimea. The pretext for Putin’s “special military operation” in February was a series of invented Ukrainian provocations — known about and leaked in advance by U.S. intelligence — in the Donbas, as the two oblasts are collectively known.

“Putin wants to take all of the Donbas by March 2023,” one Western diplomat told Yahoo News. “And he doesn’t care at what cost.”

The war’s price tag, however, is rising all the time.

President Biden arriving at the Philadelphia International Airport on Friday.
President Biden at the Philadelphia International Airport on Friday. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

Part of the new American weapons package for Ukraine announced by the Pentagon Friday is a consignment of ground-launched small-diameter bombs, a ground version of the air-launched GBU-39 small-diameter bomb, which first entered service in the U.S. Air Force in 2006 and has since been used successfully in numerous wars. Guided by the Global Positioning System, the bombs operate in all conditions and is exceptionally accurate, hitting within a yard of its designated target.

Ukraine’s lack of a long-range firing capability over and above that of previously supplied artillery rockets has been a capability gap long bemoaned by the Ukrainian military. The U.S., the U.K., France and Germany have sent the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) or M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) to Kyiv, but the ammunition for either has so far been limited to around 50 miles. This has forced the Russians to move their fuel and ammunition depots out of range, complicating already strained Russian logistics, but also rendering Ukraine’s ability to corrode their supply lines more difficult.

The introduction of the ground-launched small-diameter bombs will give the Russians fewer areas to fall back to. They have a maximum range of 94 miles, nearly double that of the longest-range munition known to be in Ukraine’s arsenal. All of Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, the vast majority of Russian-occupied Donbas, and the northern third of Russian-occupied Crimea, will be in range once the ground-launched bombs arrive sometime in the spring.

One U.S. official explained to Yahoo News that an early problem besetting artillery resupplies to Ukraine was that Ukrainians were using their ammunition stocks too quickly and firing pricey payloads at low- or mid-value targets. Inventory and logistics now predominate in ongoing discussions of security assistance over fears of escalating against Russia. This is now the main reason, the official said, that the Biden administration has yet to agree to send the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), which have a range of 190 miles and would put all Russian military positions in Ukraine within striking distance. Each ATACMS costs $1 million. It’s also no longer manufactured by Lockheed Martin and is in dwindling international supply.

The ground-launched small-diameter bomb, on the other hand, is “off-the-shelf,” currently mass produced by Boeing and Saab. Moreover, according to the manufacturers, it is or will eventually be compatible with the HIMARS or an M270 MLRS, even if the U.S. is reportedly sending a separate ground launcher to fire them.