Russia is mustering its military might in the Luhansk region of Ukraine, local officials said, in what Kyiv suspects is preparation for an offensive in the eastern area as the first anniversary of Moscow’s invasion approaches.
The Kremlin’s forces are expelling local residents from their homes near the Russian-held parts of the front line so that they cannot provide information about Russian troop deployments to Ukrainian artillery, Luhansk governor Serhii Haidai said.
“There is an active transfer of (Russian troops) to the region and they are definitely preparing for something on the eastern front in February,” Mr Haidai said.
Military analysts anticipate a new push soon by Moscow’s forces, with the Institute for the Study of War saying that “an imminent Russian offensive in the coming months is the most likely course of action”.
A new offensive might also coincide with the invasion’s first anniversary on February 24.
The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine reported on Wednesday that Russia is also concentrating its efforts in neighbouring Donetsk province, especially in its bid to capture the key city of Bakhmut.
Donetsk and Luhansk provinces make up the Donbas, an industrial region bordering Russia that President Vladimir Putin identified as a goal from the war’s outset and where Moscow-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian authorities since 2014.
The regional governor of Donetsk, Pavlo Kyrylenko, posted images of the aftermath of the shelling in Bakhmut, showing huge black holes in residential buildings in the embattled city.
He said that Russia is “actively deploying new military personnel to the region”.
Donetsk was one of four provinces that Russia illegally annexed in the autumn, but it controls only about half of it. To take the remaining half, Russian forces have no choice but to go through Bakhmut, which offers the only approach to bigger Ukrainian-held cities.
Russian forces have been trying for months to capture Bakhmut. Moscow-installed authorities in Donetsk claimed Russian troops are “closing the ring” around the city.
The Russian shelling of Bakhmut, where most residents have fled and others spend much of their time in cellars, killed at least five civilians and wounded 10 others on Tuesday, Ukraine’s presidential office said.
Ukraine is keen to secure more Western military aid as it tries to fend off the much larger Russian forces. It has already won pledges of tanks and now wants more.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, tweeted on Wednesday that talks are under way on securing longer-range missiles and fighter jets from Ukraine’s allies.
Asked to comment on media reports about a new package of US military assistance to Ukraine expected to be announced soon, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described it as “a direct path to inciting tensions and taking the escalation to a new level”.
“It will require additional efforts on our part, but it won’t change the course of events,” he said in a conference call with reporters.
The Western allies are trying to broaden their coalition in support of Ukraine.
Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday in Tokyo that he sought stronger cooperation and more “friends” for the alliance in the Indo-Pacific region.