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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Another Feb. 24? Why This February’s Russian Assault Is Different

Moscow’s offensive appears to be underway, but it will be rolled out in phases in the coming days and weeks. There are no surprise this time, but the stakes are just as high.

Photo of Russian forces in Ukraine

Russian forces are gradually advancing towards Seversk in the Donetsk People’s Republic

Anna Akage

Ten days into the month of February, 2023, Ukrainian and Western military sources report that Russia’s much anticipated — and accelerated — full-scale assault on Ukraine has already begun. A barrage of Russian missiles fired early Friday at infrastructure targets in the cities of Zaporizhzhia and Kharkiv is a clear sign of escalation.

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Yet some caution that the real launch is still to come.

But what we know for sure is that we won’t see another Feb. 24, 2022. That of course was the day Vladimir Putin carried through on what many thought was a bluff of a military threat, ordering an all-out invasion of Russia’s western neighbor that has changed the course of the history in both countries, and beyond.

Have no doubt, the stakes are just as high ahead with the current offensive. While another attempt to take Kyiv is all but inconceivable, a major Russian success in the coming weeks could reverse the general momentum that has gone in Ukraine’s favor the past six months. And that risks weakening the resolve of Kyiv’s Western partners.

Instead, yet another failure by the Russian army could send a signal both to Moscow and the nation’s hinterland that Ukraine will not buckle, and the invasion is doomed.

From both official sources and military experts, here’s what to look for in what may be the most crucial few weeks since the war began last February:

Watch Zaporizhzhia, Kramatorsk, and Sloviansk

Based on the situation of Russian forces at the front in early January, Ukrainian experts assume that Russia will develop the initial offensive in three main directions, trying to push the front line as far east as possible.

Beyond missile attacks on infrastructure like those on Friday, Russia will try to break through on the ground into the previously secured cities of Kramatorsk, and Sloviansk in the Donetsk region, as well as towns and cities in the Zaporizhzhya region.

A key objective in these targets is to strengthen their positions in order to protect Crimea from long-range missiles that will soon come to Ukraine from its Western allies.

Gerasimov’s troop revival

The newly installed Russian Commander of the Eastern Military District, General Valery Gerasimov, is taking steps to integrate an array of both traditional and independent fighting forces that have failed to coordinate their actions in the past, explains Viktor Kevliuk, an expert at the Ukrainian Center for Defense Strategies, writing for Livy Bereg.

He's trying to prevent troop degradation.

Regular units of the Russian Armed Forces, manned by contract soldiers and mobilized personnel, as well as separatist pro-Russian formations from Ukraine, Cossack and Chechen units, and mercenaries from the Wagner Group must be brought into the fold of the traditional hierarchical structure. That would mean bringing the uniforms and appearance of the personnel into line and to restore statutory relations between the categories of military personnel.

Gerasimov is trying to prevent further troop degradation, establish management, and seeking to restore control over disparate groups of fighters.

According to him, the Russian grouping increased from 25,000 to 49,000 soldiers in these areas from December to January, but the quality of training of the units is low. The redeployment of the most combat-ready units to the above-cited areas, and their reinforcement with other troops, is further indication that a major counteroffensive operation is imminent.

Photo of Russian forces in Ukraine

Russian tank in Ukraine

Sergei Bobylev/TASS

Decoy maneuvers in Sumy and Kharkiv regions

In Russian border region of Belgorod, Moscow can currently count on a group of 17 battalions. The Kursk and Bryansk regions have similar forces in terms of size and composition. It may allow them to launch an offensive in Sumy or Kharkiv regions with the further prospect of marching on the capital of Kyiv or repeating the attack on Ukraine’s second biggest city, Kharkiv, in the northeast.

The presence of these Russian forces requires that the Ukrainian Armed Forces Command must maintain a response force in the border areas. But this appears to be a decoy ploy, because a broad offensive on big cities or an even larger-scale march through Sumy and Poltava regions toward the Dnipro River would require proper preparation along the border, which is not currently in place.

There won’t be another “Day X” that we witnessed at the beginning of the war: this offensive is being rolled out in successive phases. Yet Feb. 24 will also be an important date this year. With Vladimir Putin’s obsession over the symbolism of anniversaries, Ukraine is bracing for Russia to intensify its offensive as February 24 approaches.

No surprises this time

According to Viktor Kevliuk, up to 40% of the Russian group's command positions remain vacant. That obliges the Russian command to act in a patterned manner, adhering to the classical canons of military tactics.

It is perhaps a lesson for both sides, just as Putin learned last February, neither victory nor defeat will happen quickly.

Troops have been stockpiling material and technical resources, but doing so at a distance of 50-80 kilometers from the line of combat, thus avoiding the destruction of a large number of stockpiles by a single strike of Ukrainian high-precision long-range weapons. The logistics format chosen by the Russian military command cannot provide a large-scale offensive, only simultaneous actions of several formations in one or two directions.

Russian military command has been trying to draw conclusions from the losses of personnel in the areas of concentration and to protect the replenished reservers of personnel as much as possible. In eastern regions, logistics hubs have been built, stockpiling military equipment and awaiting the next wave of mobilization.

It is perhaps a lesson for both sides, just as Putin learned last February, neither victory nor defeat will happen quickly.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Much Does Xi Jinping Care About Putin's ICC Arrest Warrant?

After the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in Moscow for a three-day visit. How far will he be willing to go to support Putin, a fugitive from international justice?

Photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev

Extended meeting of Russian Interior Ministry board on Monday, March 20

Pierre Haski


PARIS — Since Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin said last year that the friendship between their nations was "boundless," the world has wondered where the limits really lie. The Chinese president's three-day visit to Russia, which began Monday, gives us an opportunity to assess.

Xi's visit is important in many ways, particularly because the International Criminal Court has just issued an arrest warrant against Putin for his role in forcibly sending thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia. For Putin, there could be no better response to this international court, which he does not recognize, than to appear alongside the president of a great country, which, like Russia, is also a permanent member of the UN Security Council. How isolated can Putin really be, when the leader of 1.5 billion people in China comes to visit?

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