Russia is reportedly preparing to launch another large-scale offensive in Ukraine. Although it remains highly uncertain what will be the major direction of a potential Russian attack, there are fears in Kyiv that the Russian forces plan to reinvade from Belarus.
Numerous reports suggest that echelons of Russian military equipment continue arriving in Belarus. Moreover, the commander of Russia’s ground forces, Oleg Salyukov – who was named as one of the deputy commanders of Russia’s so-called special military operation in Ukraine in the latest of a series of reshuffles – visited the former Soviet republic on January 12 to inspect the combat readiness of a joint force stationed there. However, Russia has not yet accumulated its troops near the border with Ukraine, which means that a potential attack on northern or northwestern Ukraine is unlikely to take place at least until the end of January.
Still, the Ukrainian authorities have started preparing for the worst-case scenario. In the Rivne region, bordering Belarus, fortifications are being erected, and local territorial defense units are actively digging trenches. In addition, back in November the Ukrainian forces have preventively destroyed bridges near Belarusian border, aiming to prevent a potential Russian advance from the north. Rumors are flying that Ukraine has already deployed additional forces to defend the capital city, and local authorities have apparently started placing a large number of concrete blocks around the city to hinder Russian military vehicles in key locations.
However, the very fact that Western embassies have not evacuated their staff from Kyiv suggests that chances for another Russian attempt to reach the outskirts of Ukraine’s capital are rather slim. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that the Russian forces will eventually try to invade certain regions in the north of Ukraine, apparently in order to force Kyiv to redeploy additional forces from the Donbass and also from the south of the country to defend their northern flank. Also, since Russia is reportedly building up troops in the Zaporizhzhia region, it is not improbable the growing number of soldiers and equipment in Belarus is nothing but a part of the Russian military deception, also known as maskirovka.
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The buildup of Russian troops in Belarus is much smaller than the force that piled into northern Ukraine last February. Indeed, with only around 15,000 troops in Belarus, Russia cannot launch a major offensive in the north. For political reasons, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is unlikely to allow the Belarusian Armed Forces to get directly involved in another Kremlin military adventure, which means that Russia will be on its own again. Thus, the major goal of the Russian troop buildup in Belarus is most likely to divert Ukrainian troops to the north.
By reopening the northern front, Russia would have the opportunity to stretch Ukrainian forces which have been focused for months on battles raging in the east and south. But in order to do that Moscow would either need to deploy dozens of thousands of freshly mobilized soldiers, or force Lukashenko to actively and directly participate in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Under the current circumstances, neither option seems realistic. Instead, the Kremlin could launch limited offensives in some regions of Ukraine, and at the same time continue implementing the “active defense” strategy in other sections of the front line.
According to reports, Russian Navy ships and submarines have left their base at Novorossiysk, in the Black Sea, en-masse, which could be interpreted as another sign of preparations for what appears to be an imminent escalation of the conflict. That, however, does not necessarily mean that the Kremlin will attempt to impose a naval blockade of Ukraine, since such a move could lead to further loss of capitol ships. It is more likely the Russian military will use the ships to launch another missile strike on Ukraine, although it is also possible the Black Sea Fleet is reshuffling its forces to avoid a potential Ukrainian strike.
One thing is for sure – whether Russia attempts to reinvade Ukraine from Belarus or not, sooner or later the Ukrainian army, supplied with all kinds of Western-made weapons, will launch a large-scale offensive.
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