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Ukrainian troops at the front warn of an imminent Russian offensive in Zaporizhia


The Numantine defense of Bakhmut has weakened Ukraine's positions in a place that the military and intelligence services consider key to the future of the war

A silence reigns in Orijiv that does not bode well.

In a basement of this town on the Zaporizhia front, in southeastern Ukraine, soldiers from a platoon of the 65th Mechanized Infantry Brigade wait impatiently at the inactivity in the Russian positions.

The enemy is three kilometers away and traces of Russian artillery and cluster bombs are everywhere.

But for the past two weeks, their guns and troops have drastically reduced their fire.

"They are concentrating forces to launch an offensive, 100% sure," says the platoon commander.

It is a matter of weeks, add his men and other units consulted by EL PAÍS in this line of combat of the war.

There are times when the intelligence reports written in Washington match up to the millimeter with the experience of soldiers at the front, and this is what is happening in Zaporizhia.

While the leadership in kyiv points to Bakhmut in Donetsk as the battle in which the fate of Ukraine is at stake, the Zaporizhian flank has been weakened.

And for many of these soldiers in the trenches, but also for NATO analysts, it is where the future of the war can be decided.

“Everyone is looking out for Bakhmut, but what happens here is more important,” says Stepan, an officer with the Artey battalion of the Territorial Defense Forces, a volunteer branch of the Army.

Artey's men are fighting on the hardest axis of the Zaporizhia front, between the municipalities of Orijiv and Huliaipole.

Stepan —like most of the soldiers interviewed for this article, prefers not to reveal his last name— assures that two friends died in January, in addition to seeing 10 of his colleagues fall injured.

“The president [Volodimir Zelensky] visited Bakhmut in December and stated that the future of Ukraine was defended there, so there is no going back, but Zaporizhia is the road to Melitopol, it is the only option to cut the Russian land corridor between his border and Crimea”.

Zaporizhia is the only province where the Ukrainian army is located on the eastern bank of the Dnieper River.

It is from Zaporizhia that the Ukrainian Armed Forces could advance without having to risk an almost miraculous operation, and for which they now do not have enough resources, which is to attempt a landing further south on the Dnieper, from Kherson or Nova Kahovka.

The beeline to Melitopol and the Azov Sea is from Zaporizhia.

In January there were several warnings by senior White House officials, broadcast through the media, that Bakhmut is worryingly decimating Ukrainian military resources, and that a withdrawal in this Donbas city could be a fair price to pay if a counter-offensive is organized from the south, from Zaporizhia.

"A major Ukrainian advance in Zaporizhia would seriously jeopardize the viability of the land bridge between the Russian region of Rostov and Crimea," the intelligence service of the British Ministry of Defense stressed on January 8.

But the window of opportunity is closing, according to the military interviewed.

Stepan believes that the Russian tanks are waiting to advance the first time the temperatures drop again.

Vasil, commanding officer of a military police patrol in Orijiv, gives two weeks for the enemy to launch their offensive.

At the beginning of January there were limited Russian attacks that allowed them to gain some positions, although now, Vasil indicates, what they find are mainly reconnaissance outposts to determine what forces the Ukrainians have.

Ukrainian armored infantry transport, on Thursday in the vicinity of Huliaipole, on the Zaporizhia front. Cristian Segura

The men of the 65th Motorized Brigade estimate that there are about 20,000 Russian soldiers on the other side of the front, and about 18,000 on the Ukrainian side.

It is an optimal balance of forces to defend because, according to the most basic military theory, to attack requires a power greater than three to one.

But Vasil confirms that they have lost artillery pieces that have been destined for Bakhmut.

"If we recapture Melitopol, we will win the war," says this officer, "we respect our government but above all we trust Valeri Zaluzhni [commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces], he knows what to do."

Only vehicles carrying soldiers circulate on the roads connecting the west with Orijiv and Huilapole.

The movement of troops and weapons is incomparably less than in the Donetsk province, in the direction of Bakhmut.

Most of the transportation is done at night, the sources consulted indicate, but in Bakhmut or on the Lugansk front, the movement of armored vehicles and self-propelled guns is also continuous during the day.

Up to three soldiers interviewed on the road that connects Pokrovske and Huliaipole confirm that they have just arrived in the region from Donbas, in a phase of troop rotation: they are assigned to Zaporizhia to recover energy.

“In Donetsk, you barely have a few free minutes a day, here it's a different rhythm,” says Ivan, an armored infantry artilleryman.

siege over Donetsk

In a village store 10 kilometers from the front, three members of the 102nd Brigade of the Territorial Defense Forces carry a list of products to buy for their battalion.

They have been on the Zaporizhia front since March and confirm that the increase in soldiers among their ranks is dropper because the priority is Bakhmut and Donetsk.

"Russia has two inexhaustible resources, troops to send to slaughter and artillery," says the commanding officer.

The men of the 102nd Brigade confirm that the invading Army is concentrating men in Zaporizhia, but with the aim of opening a new flank, to the south, over the Ukrainian positions in the Donetsk province.

Pokrovske (in the Dnipropetrovsk province) is the junction of land and rail communications between the Zaporizhia front and the Donetsk front.

Pokrovske is a municipality of 9,000 inhabitants wholly occupied by the Ukrainian army.

The movement there is frantic.

During the day, armored infantry transport columns can be seen, especially Soviet BMPs;

at night, affirm the military established there with whom this newspaper spoke, the rhythm is greater.

“Both we and the Russians are accumulating forces to attack,” says Stepan of the Artey Battalion, “but they are ready, the weather has failed them, and we should take advantage of it.”

Stepan attends EL PAÍS at the table of a Pokrovkse gas station.

Gas stations in war zones, one of the few establishments that work, also serve as a place to socialize.

Stepan repeats the same thesis as the soldiers of the 65th Mechanized Infantry Brigade and the 102nd Territorial Defense Brigade: this is not a good time for a tank offensive in Zaporizhia, because the temperatures are unusually high — above 0 degrees. —the terrain is a quagmire and the tanks are advancing slowly.

On the Zaporizhia plains, tanks become easy targets.

The best bet is to goad the Russians with quick, small-unit operations with the faster, lighter armored infantry carriers.

In this way it was possible to break the Russian defense lines in Kharkov in September.

For that, the soldiers interviewed indicate, the vehicles agreed with the NATO allies, the American Bradleys and Humvees, the German Marder or the French AMX-10, among others, would have to arrive already.

German Leopard tanks are expected to arrive by the end of March at the latest.

A soldier from the Ukrainian special forces in the town of Novoselivka, on the Zaporizhia front. Cristian Segura

The advance of the infantry, indicate Stepan and the men of the 65th Brigade, must be accompanied by the harassment of the Russian positions with precision artillery, a resource that in Zaporizhia they do not have in sufficient quantity now because Donetsk and Lugansk have been prioritized .

The soldiers of the 65th Brigade emphasize that to advance they also need more anti-aircraft defenses, anti-drone weapons and rocket launchers against helicopters.

Tanks can be useful as artillery, and be ready to move when the spring rainy season is over, based on their experience in the field.

Wagner's presence

“Do you know why I know this is going to get ugly?

Because they sent me here,” says Vasil Tsirik, a soldier from the Kraken regiment of the Ukrainian special forces.

Tsirik stopped the EL PAÍS journalist on Wednesday in the village of Novoselivka, five kilometers from the Russian lines.

The enemy had fired cluster bombs that morning into this town of about 500 inhabitants, now virtually devoid of civilians.

The soldier, a former Marine from Crimea, asked the journalist to step where he stepped, because there are usually explosives from cluster bombs that have not detonated.

Tsirik stopped in front of Valentin Kezlivcha's corral, where this shepherd keeps his herd of goats.

The soldier asked him if any bomb had hit his house.

Yes, that's how it was, and immediately afterwards he showed the damage.

Asked if the goats don't graze because there is still snow, the shepherd replied: "No, the goats don't graze because this is full of mines, the Russians were here in March."

Kezlivcha is not afraid, he added, he is a veteran of the Soviet army, he fought against the Israelis in Syria, although he does not remember in which war.

The Institute for the Study of War, a leading analysis center of military movements in Ukraine, reported on January 28 that it had detected the transfer of Wagner's Russian mercenary units from Bakhmut to Zaporizhia.

Tsirik confirms it: "We were assigned here with the arrival of Wagner's men, because when they break into a sector of the front, it means that there will be an attack."

Wagner's men are not the problem, he explains, because they serve as cannon fodder: they are neither properly trained, nor well equipped, nor follow any tactic beyond advancing even if they drop like flies.

The problem, adds Tsirik, is that behind them are the Russian special forces and airborne brigades.

"And when these come into action, it is that our positions are in real danger."

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Source: elparis

All news articles on 2023-02-05

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