“The Russians are preparing some 200,000 fresh troops,” Ukrainian Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhny, his nation’s top military commander, said in a newly published discussion of the war in Ukraine. “I have no doubt they will have another go at Kyiv.”
A frenzy of activity by the warring sides thus is underway despite the public international perception of a slowdown in the fighting in the weeks since Ukrainian forces liberated Kherson. And the efficacy of those preparatory measures could dictate the success of a high-stakes clash approximately one year after Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to seize the Ukrainian capital.
“The second, very important strategic task for us is to create reserves and prepare for the war, which may take place in February, at best in March, and at worst at the end of January,” the general told the Economist. “It may start not in Donbas, but in the direction of Kyiv, in the direction of Belarus, I do not rule out the southern direction as well.”
That forecast points to the internal logic of the war’s continuance through the winter. Russian forces launched a persistent bombardment of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure as Ukrainian forces husband their resources for efficient counteroffensives and degrade Russian military supply chains.
“We are constantly strengthening our air defense and anti-drone defense,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Wednesday. “And we are doing everything to get more modern and more powerful systems for Ukraine. This week, we have made important progress on the air defense issue.”
President Joe Biden reportedly has decided to provide Ukraine with the Patriot air defense system, a prized American system. The availability of such air defense systems could dictate the course of the war, Zaluzhny implied.
“I am not an energy expert, but it seems to me we are on the edge. We are balancing on a fine line,” he said in the Dec. 3 interview. “And if [the power grid] is destroyed … that is when soldiers’ wives and children start freezing. And such a scenario is possible. What kind of mood the fighters will be in, can you imagine? Without water, light and heat, can we talk about preparing reserves to keep fighting?”
The ferocity of the conflict has reinforced the social, political, and military case in Ukraine for continuing the fight, contrary to international speculation that the liberation of Kherson might lead to a ceasefire, notwithstanding Russia’s continuing occupation of other Ukrainian territory.
“The issue is deeper than land,” Zelensky said in a separate interview with the Economist. “No one wants to have a dialogue with these people who unleashed [the war]. Because the people [have come to] hate. That’s the truth. … It is a tragedy for families who lost children. I don’t want to live longer than my children. I will hate this life with these people who took my wishes, a piece of me. That’s why the people hate.”
That attitude militates against any leader striking a ceasefire. “Why am I against freezing this war? Because in Donbas we have already seen it. They take away part of the territory and then freeze it for some time, to become more powerful occupiers, ready for more occupation, and that’s all,” Zelensky said. “Just to leave it as it is now, to say, OK, let’s stop and they take Donbas, the south of our country, or part of it, and Crimea remains with them … why? ‘Because it is time to do so and you should’? We will not be able to, no one would forgive it.”
Russia’s targeting of the energy infrastructure is an attempt to inflict enough pain to “get a pause by any means,” according to Zaluzhny.
‘They need it for one simple purpose: They need time to gather resources and create new potential so they can continue to fulfill their goals,” the general said. “Just as during the Second World War, I have no doubt about it, it is most likely that somewhere beyond the Urals, they are preparing new resources. They are 100% being prepared.”
Ukraine has more to lose through a deal that delays that clash than to gain by alleviating the current pressure, according to Zaluzhny, but that calculus may depend on the extent to which Western allies can provide additional armaments to Ukraine.
“When I told [a British general] that the British Army fired a million shells in World War One, I was told, ‘We will lose Europe. We will have nothing to live on if you fire that many shells,’” he said. “When they say, ‘You get 50,000 shells,’ the people who count the money faint. The biggest problem is that they really don’t have it. … I know that I can beat this enemy. But I need resources.”
So do the Russians. “It won’t be the same resources as [Russia] could have [acquired] in two years of ceasefire,” Zaluzhny said. “It will be lousy, and combat potential will be very, very low, even if he enlists a million more people in the army to throw bodies. … They may not be that well equipped, but they still present a problem for us.”