New weapons, more troops: Ukraine, Russia both seek advantage as next major offensive looms

News that the United States could soon send rockets nearly doubling the firing range of Ukrainian forces gave Kyiv a big lift on Wednesday, even as its troops were being pushed back by a relentless Russian winter offensive in the east.

U.S. likely to send longer-range rockets to Ukraine; war analysts expect new Russian offensive soon

A soldier in full combat gear including a helmet holds up a tissue to her eyes, which are closed. A Ukrainian flag is on the middle of the front of her clothing.
A Ukrainian soldier becomes emotional Wednesday as she talks about her homeland during a visit by British and Australian officials to the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, U.K., where Australian Armed Forces are supporting the U.K.-led training of Ukrainian recruits. The Russian invasion shows no signs of letting up as its one-year anniversary approaches. (Ben Birchall/AFP/Getty Images)

News that the United States could soon send rockets nearly doubling the firing range of Ukrainian forces gave Kyiv a big lift on Wednesday, even as its troops were being pushed back by a relentless Russian winter offensive in the east.

Two U.S. officials said a new $2 billion US package of military aid to be announced as soon as this week would for the first time include Ground Launched Small Diameter Bombs (GLSDB), a new weapon designed by Boeing.

The cheap gliding missiles can strike targets more than 150 kilometres away, a dramatic increase over the 80-kilometre range of the rockets fired by HIMARS systems, which changed the face of the war when Washington sent them last summer.

It would mean most of Russian-occupied Ukraine could soon be in range of  Ukrainian forces, forcing Moscow to shift some ammunition and fuel storage sites all the way back to Russia itself.

Russia has momentum

The expected U.S. announcement comes a week after Western countries pledged scores of advanced main battle tanks for the first time, a breakthrough in support aimed at giving Kyiv the capability to recapture occupied territory this year.

But the arrival of the new weapons is still months away, and in the meantime, Russia has gained momentum on the battlefield for the first time since mid-2022, in brutal winter fighting both sides describe as a meat grinder.

Russia is mustering its military might in the Luhansk region of Ukraine, local officials say, in what Kyiv suspects is preparation for an offensive in the eastern area in coming weeks as the anniversary of Moscow's invasion approaches.

Soldiers in camoflauge kneel in a line outdoors while using automatic weapons. Military vehicles are visible in the background and the ground is covered in a dusting of snow or frost.
Russian army soldiers practise on a military training ground in Russian-controlled Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, on Tuesday. (Alexei Alexandrov/The Associated Press)

The Kremlin's forces are expelling local residents from their homes near the Russian-held parts of the front line so that they can't provide information about Russian troop deployments to Ukrainian artillery, Luhansk Gov. Serhii Haidai said.

"There is an active transfer of [Russian troops] to the region and they are definitely preparing for something on the eastern front in February," Haidai said.

Military analysts anticipate a new push soon by Moscow's forces, with the Institute for the Study of War saying in an assessment late Tuesday that "an imminent Russian offensive in the coming months is the most likely course of action."

Battle for Bakhmut rages building to building

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Monday that Russia may mobilize upwards of 200,000 personnel and is continuing to acquire weapons and ammunition through increased domestic production and partnerships with authoritarian states, the institute noted.

A new offensive might also coincide with the invasion anniversary on Feb. 24.

The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine reported Wednesday that Russia is also concentrating its efforts in neighbouring Donetsk province, especially in its bid to capture the key city of Bakhmut.

Moscow has announced advances north and south of the city of Bakhmut in recent days, its main target for months.

Troops were fighting building to building in Bakhmut for gains of barely 100 metres a night, and the city was coming under constant Russian shelling, a soldier in a Ukrainian unit of Belarusian volunteers told Reuters from inside the city. Russian forces were manoeuvring to try to surround it.

The city used to be a popular tourist destination — literally of wine and roses — but is now the site of the longest battle of Russia's war. Despite bombing, shelling and attempts to encircle Bakhmut for six months, Russia's forces have not conquered it.

'It's hell on earth'

But their scorched-earth tactics have made it impossible for civilians to have any semblance of a life there.

"It's hell on earth right now; I can't find enough words to describe it," said Ukrainian soldier Petro Voloschenko, who is known on the battlefield as Stone, his voice rising with emotion and resentment.

Voloschenko, who is originally from Kyiv, arrived in the area in August when the Russian assault started.

A man walks in a waist-deep trench that cuts diagonally across the image.
Ukrainian serviceman Myroslav, 23, walks in a trench near a front-line position in the Donetsk region, on Tuesday. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

The 44-year-old saw the city, located around 100 kilometres from Russia's border, gradually turned into a wasteland of ruins. Most of the houses are crushed, and only a few thousand residents out of a prewar 80,000 remain.

The city constantly shudders with the muffled sound of explosions, the whizzing of mortars and a constant soundtrack of artillery. Anywhere is a potential target.

Bakhmut offers the only approach to bigger Ukrainian-held cities in the region, according to Mykola Bielieskov, a research fellow at Ukraine's National Institute for Strategic Studies.

Least-trained Russians in the vanguard

The months of battle exhausted both armies. In the fall, Russia changed tactics and sent in foot soldiers instead of probing the front line mainly with artillery, according to Voloschenko.

Bielieskov said the least-trained Russians go first to force the Ukrainians to open fire and expose the strengths and weaknesses of their defence.

More trained units or mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private Russian military company led by a rogue millionaire and known for its brutality, make up the rear guard, Bielieskov said.

Bielieskov said that Ukraine compensates for its lack of heavy equipment with people who are ready to stand to the last.

The result is that the battle is believed to have produced horrific troop losses for both Ukraine and Russia. Quite how deadly isn't known because neither side will say.

"Manpower is less of a Russian problem and, in some ways, more of a Ukrainian problem, not only because the casualties are painful, but they're often ... Ukraine's best troops," said Lawrence Freedman, a professor emeritus of war studies at King's College London.

'A symbol of Ukrainian invincibility'

In January, the Russians seized the town of Soledar, located less than 20 kilometres away, but their advance is very slow, according to military analysts.

Bakhmut remains completely under the control of the Ukrainian army, albeit more as a fortress than a place where people would visit, work or live.

"Bakhmut has already become a symbol of Ukrainian invincibility," Voloschenko said. "Bakhmut is the heart of Ukraine, and the future peace of those cities that are no longer under occupation depends on the rhythm with which it beats."

WATCH | Ukrainians' resilience in the face of war:

Ukrainians’ unbreakable resilience in the face of war

4 months ago
Duration 3:10
Russian President Vladimir Putin may be trying to break the spirit of Ukrainians with constant attacks, but it doesn’t appear to be working in Kyiv, where daily life continues as a display of resilience.

Meanwhile, in Kyiv, Ukrainian authorities continued what President Volodymyr Zelenskyy touts as a sweeping wartime clampdown on corruption that could change the country.

Separate raids were carried out at the Tax Office and on the home of an influential former interior minister, two days before Kyiv hosts a summit with the European Union at which Kyiv wants to show it is cracking down after years of chronic corruption.

Ukraine sees Friday's summit as vital to its hopes of joining the wealthy bloc, a goal that is more urgent following  Russia's invasion, and has also embarked on a political shake-up in which over a dozen officials quit or were fired last week.

Other developments related to the war Wednesday:

  • Turkey looks positively on Finland's application for NATO membership, but does not support Sweden's bid, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday. Of NATO's 30 members, only Turkey and Hungary are yet to ratify the Nordic countries' memberships.
  • Latvia would not send athletes to an Olympic Games that included Russian and Belarusian nationals while the invasion in Ukraine is ongoing, a spokesperson for the country's Olympic committee said on Wednesday. 
  • The Kremlin on Wednesday welcomed Russian company Fores's offer of $72,000 "bounty payments" for soldiers who destroy Western-made tanks on the battlefield in Ukraine, saying it would spur Russian forces to victory.

With files from The Associated Press and CBC News