New Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine ‘more aspirational than realistic,’ say Western officials

Russia has been increasing the number of forces situated on its border and inside Russian-held territory in Ukraine, some of the forces drawn from a partial mobilization ordered in September last year. Despite the increased numbers, Western allies have not seen evidence of sufficient changes to those forces’ ability to carry out combined arms operations needed to take and hold new territory.

“It’s unlikely Russian forces will be particularly better organized and so unlikely they’ll be particularly more successful, though they do seem willing to send more troops into the meat grinder,” a senior British official told CNN.

The US military had assessed it would take as long as until May for the Russian military to regenerate enough power for a sustained offensive, but Russian leaders wanted action sooner. The US now sees it as likely that Russian forces are moving before they are ready due to political pressure from the Kremlin, the senior US military official told CNN.

Though Ukrainian officials have been sounding the alarm about new Russian attacks in the East, there is also skepticism on the Ukrainian side about Russian capabilities as those forces currently stand.

“They amassed enough manpower to take one or two small cities in Donbas, but that’s it,” a senior Ukrainian diplomat told CNN. “Underwhelming, compared to the sense of panic they were trying to build in Ukraine.”

As the war approaches its first anniversary later this month, Ukraine has kept the pressure on Western leaders to provide more advanced and longer-range weaponry to defend and fight back against Russia. In January, the US, Britain, and Germany agreed to send modern battle tanks, but now Ukraine is pushing for fighter jets and long-range missiles.

Earlier this month Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that “Russia is now concentrating its forces and preparing for an attempt at revenge not only against Ukraine, but also against free Europe and the free world.”

He has said he believed a new Russian offensive — predicted by his commanders in interviews in December — had already started.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Tuesday in Brussels that the US is not seeing Russia “massing its aircraft” ahead of an aerial operation against Ukraine.

“In terms of whether or not Russia is massing its aircraft for some massive aerial attack, we don’t currently see that. We do know that Russia has a substantial number of aircraft in its inventory and a lot of capability left,” he said. “That’s why we’ve emphasized that we need to do everything that we can to get Ukraine as much air defense capability as we possibly can.”

Austin also said he expects Ukraine to “conduct an offensive sometime in the spring.”

CNN’s Haley Britzky contributed reporting.

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