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Russian Forces Strengthen Positions as Ukraine Braces for New Offensive

KYIV, Ukraine—Russian forces tightened their grip around the eastern city of Bakhmut on Friday as Ukrainian President

Volodymyr Zelensky

warned his country to prepare for a wider onslaught nearly one year since the start of the war.

After months of failed assaults on Bakhmut, all approaches to the city are within range of Russian artillery, officials in the Russian-installed administration claimed. Russian forces are entrenched on the eastern edge of the city and are seeking to encircle it.

While Russian forces plowed forward, European officials were in Kyiv to discuss potential further aid with Mr. Zelensky. Speaking to the media, the Ukrainian leader said the country would need to dig deep to weather the next phase of the conflict, adding that intelligence assessments indicate that much of the Russian pressure will come in the south and east.

“Russia wants revenge where they failed to succeed. They want to take the east,” Mr. Zelensky said, advising Ukrainians to steel themselves for what might come.

“I think that at the very beginning of the war, the spirit was stronger. We were all at war,” he said. “In the cities that weren’t occupied we had the full feeling that we were at war—and now I can feel that in some cities they are relaxed. And I think that that is their weakness.”

Ukrainian officials have warned that Russia is preparing for a fresh offensive to coincide with the first anniversary of its full-scale invasion on Feb. 24 last year. 

As the U.S. and its allies start sending Abrams, Leopards and other tanks to help Ukraine, those vehicles are set to change the dynamics of the war along the front lines. WSJ examines how the tanks that Ukraine will receive from the West compare with Russia’s vehicles. Illustration: Adam Adada

Moscow began mobilizing roughly 300,000 additional men last September after Ukrainian forces drove Russia out of swaths of territory it had occupied. More than half of them are likely to be deployed in any new offensive,

Oleksiy Danilov,

the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said earlier this week.

The primary objective is likely to be the eastern Donetsk region and the wider Donbas industrial area of which it is part.

Despite the looming threat, the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said that it saw no evidence that Russian forces had restored sufficient combat power to defeat Ukraine’s forces in the east and that President

Vladimir Putin

might have overestimated his military’s capabilities again.

More than 11,300 square kilometers, or 4,350 square miles, of the Donetsk region remain under Ukrainian control, the institute said. It said a major Russian offensive in the near term would likely culminate prematurely during the April spring rain season before achieving significant effects.

“[That] could then generate favorable conditions for Ukrainian forces to exploit in their own late spring or summer 2023 counteroffensive after incorporating Western tank deliveries,” the think tank said.

The U.S., Germany and other countries last week agreed to provide Ukraine with at least 120 main battle tanks, but it will take several months for them to be deployed on the front lines.

Mr. Putin on Thursday threatened to unleash the most powerful weapons at his disposal to thwart what he said were the West’s attempts to ensure Russia’s defeat.

President Volodymyr Zelensky met with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Kyiv on Thursday.


Presidential Office Of Ukraine/Zuma Press

Russia’s recent gains have been spearheaded by Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organization that claimed this week to have seized the village of Sacco and Vanzetti, north of Bakhmut. Wagner leader

Yevgeny Prigozhin

was allowed to recruit from across Russia’s prison system last year to shore, but his increasing profile and vocal criticism of the campaign has put him at odds with Russia’s military establishment.

Citing new data released by Russia’s Federal Penal Service, the U.K.’s Ministry of Defense said Wagner’s prison-recruitment drive appeared to have slowed, reflecting tensions between Mr. Prigozhin and the military leadership.

Between September to November last year, the Wagner recruitment drive was likely a major contributing factor to a drop of 23,000 in the prison population. But since then, the number of inmates has decreased by just 6,000. “Competition between factions in the Russian elite is likely to be partially responsible for the reduced supply of convicts,” the ministry said.

In Ukraine, internal fissures have also come to the fore as Mr. Zelensky seeks to show Kyiv’s Western allies he is serious about tackling corruption. Ukrainian authorities have in recent weeks charged high-profile officials with criminal offenses and launched raids on the homes of powerful business people, including a billionaire who backed Mr. Zelensky’s presidential campaign. “We also continue our fight against the internal enemy,” Mr. Zelensky said in his nightly address.

The office of Ukraine’s prosecutor general on Friday said the heads of two state enterprises had been charged with embezzling 120 million hryvnia, or around $3.2 million, allocated by the Ministry of Defense to pay for the provision of food to the armed forces.

Cracking down on corruption will be key to unlocking membership of the European Union for Ukraine. The country won formal candidate status to become an EU member from the bloc’s leaders in June, but the accession process could take many years. Mr. Zelensky pressed European Commission President

Ursula von der Leyen

to advance his country’s accession to the European Union on Thursday, saying it was helping to motivate troops on the front line. Speaking alongside Mr. Zelensky, Ms. von der Leyen praised Ukraine’s “stamina and determination” to join the bloc.

Barricades on a street in Bakhmut.


Emanuele Satolli for The Wall Street Journal

Write to Laurence Norman at laurence.norman@wsj.com and Isabel Coles at isabel.coles@wsj.com

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