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War’s grind could be grimmer ahead

Rivals look to press attacks with added troops, new weapons


For Russia, it’s been a year of bold charges and bombardmen­ts, humiliatin­g retreats and grinding sieges. Ukraine has countered with fierce resistance, surprising counteroff­ensives and unexpected hit-and-run strikes.

Now, on the first anniversar­y of Russia’s invasion that has killed tens of thousands and reduced cities to ruins, both sides are preparing for a potentiall­y even more disastrous phase that lies ahead.

Russia recently intensifie­d its push to capture all of Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland of the Donbas. Kyiv and its Western allies also say Moscow could try to launch a wider, more ambitious attack elsewhere along the more than 600-mile front line.

Ukraine is waiting for battle tanks and other new weapons pledged by the West for it to make a push to reclaim occupied areas.

What’s nowhere in sight is a settlement.

The Kremlin insists it must include the recognitio­n of the Crimean Peninsula, which it annexed illegally in 2014, along with the acceptance of its other territoria­l gains. Ukraine categorica­lly rejects those demands and rules out any talks until Russia withdraws all forces.

While Putin is determined to achieve his goals, Kyiv and its allies are standing firm on the position of not allowing Russia to end up with any Ukrainian territory.

Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institutio­n who served in the past three U.S. administra­tions, also saw little prospect for a settlement.

“The Russians are digging in for the long haul. They have no intention of losing,” she said.

Hill said Putin is hoping for Western support for Kyiv to dissolve — “that it goes away and that Ukraine is left exposed, and then that Russia can force Ukraine to capitulate and give up on its territory.”

In recent months, Russian forces have tried to encircle the Ukrainian stronghold of Bakhmut and push deeper into the Donetsk region. Along with fulfilling its goal of capturing the entire Donbas, Moscow aims to wear down Ukrainian forces and prevent them from starting offensives elsewhere.

Bakhmut has become an important symbol of tenacity for Ukraine, as well as a way to tie up and destroy the most capable Russian forces. Both sides have used up ammunition at a rate unseen in decades.

But even though Ukraine and its allies expect a wider Russian offensive beyond the Donbas, it could be a gamble for Moscow, which mobilized 300,000 reservists last fall to bolster its forces.

Igor Strelkov, a former Russian security officer who led separatist forces in the Donbas when fighting erupted there in 2014, warned that any big offensive could be disastrous for Russia because its preparatio­n would be impossible to conceal and attackers would face a devastatin­g response. He said an offensive would also raise logistical challenges like those that thwarted Russia’s attempt to capture Kyiv at the war’s start.

“Any large-scale offensive will quickly and inevitably entail very big losses, exhausting the resources accumulate­d during mobilizati­on,” Strelkov warned.

Justin Bronk, a senior research fellow at RUSI in London, predicted any Russian offensive would fail, but said it could drain Ukraine’s resources and keep it from preparing its own large-scale counteroff­ensive.

“The big question is how much damage does the Russian offensive do before it runs out of steam, because that will dictate the Ukrainian position,” he said, noting that its aim could be to disrupt Kyiv’s ability to stage a counteroff­ensive.

Bronk said Ukraine spent the winter building up its mechanized brigades that had spearheade­d autumn counteroff­ensives in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions and suffered losses.

He said Ukraine has a window of opportunit­y of six to eight months to reclaim more land, noting that Russia could launch another mobilizati­on to recruit up to 500,000 more troops who could be readied for combat after at least six months of training.

Putin has repeatedly said Russia could use “all available means” to protect its territory, a clear reference to its nuclear arsenal.

Moscow’s nuclear doctrine states that it could use those weapons in response to a nuclear strike or an attack with convention­al forces threatenin­g “the very existence of the Russian state,” a formulatio­n that offers broad room for interpreta­tion and abrupt escalation.

Some Russian hawks urged nuclear strikes on Ukrainian bridges and other key infrastruc­ture to force Kyiv and its allies to accept Moscow’s terms.

Bronk said he doesn’t expect Russia to resort to that, arguing it would backfire.

“Actually using them generates almost no practical benefits at all and certainly nothing to compensate for all of the costs, both in terms of immediate escalation risk — irradiatin­g things they want to hold on to and be part of — and also pushing away the rest of the world,” he said.

Hill also noted that Russia got some pushback from China and India, who were worried about Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling.

But Hill added: “If he thought he would get the results that he wanted from it, he would use it.”

 ?? PETROS GIANNAKOUR­IS/AP ?? A woman and her daughter listen to prayers for fallen soldiers at a service Thursday in Lviv, Ukraine.
PETROS GIANNAKOUR­IS/AP A woman and her daughter listen to prayers for fallen soldiers at a service Thursday in Lviv, Ukraine.

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