Ukraine is likely to launch its highly-anticipated counteroffensive against Russia “within weeks rather than months,” according to Western officials.
Recent Russian losses and a large arsenal of western weapons means Ukrainian forces have now begun moving into “assembly areas” along the 300 mile battlefront.
Western officials believe Ukrainian troops will be able to launch a concerted attempt to wrest back territory occupied by Russia’s invasion forces “within reasonably short order” from those positions.
One official said that “all the signs are that this is within weeks rather than within months”, according to current assessments.
They stressed that Ukraine has now built up enough forces for a major attack which may “succeed against Russian defensive positions,” and that President Volodymyr Zelensky is waiting for the “best military moment” to launch it.
Recent drone attacks on Moscow and strikes by anti-regime forces in western Russia are understood to be having a “psychological” impact on President Vladimir Putin’s military and lowering morale, according to officials.
It is also expected that President Putin will be unable to draw significant support from the Wagner group of mercenaries to defend Russia from a full-blown Ukrainian counterattack, as relations between the Kremlin and the private militia sink to an-all time low.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner group, said earlier this week that his private forces would also rest for around a month after suffering heavy losses, making it more favourable for Ukraine to launch an imminent attack.
Prigozhin hit out at the Russian army earlier on Thursday, describing the Kremlin’s troops as “clowns who turn people into meat”.
One Western official said the Wagner leader currently has “genuine animosity” for President Putin’s most senior generals, meaning the private militia is unlikely to become a “taskable part of the Russian military machine” during a Ukrainian offensive.
They also claimed that President Zelensky would be weighing up the impact of prolonged infighting between Russia’s top brass in his calculations of when to launch his much-awaited counteroffensive, alongside increasing criticism of President Putin among his own people.
It comes after Boris Nadezhdin, Russia’s opposition leader, made the first official call for President Putin to step down last week during an appearance on state TV.
The UK’s Ministry of Defence said this morning that “there is a realistic possibility that recent vitriolic rhetoric by nationalist figures such as Wagner group owner Yevgeny Prigozhin is emboldening opposition figures to challenge taboo topics”.
Ukraine has been preparing to launch its counteroffensive since the start of the spring, with President Zelensky spending the past few months amassing new assault bridges and training tens of thousands of forces.
However, the “spring offensive” has been beset by delays, in part spurred by poor weather conditions that have made rapid ground manoeuvre tricky.
President Zelensky is expected to order an initial series of mobile infantry attacks on Russian-held territory in the coming weeks, which will pave the way for a wider push into key regions.
The Kremlin currently controls around 103,600 square kilometres of land in Ukraine — almost a fifth of the country.
Around 152,000 Russian soldiers are thought to be currently defending the occupied parts of the southern Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, while Ukraine is thought to have 160,000 to 220,000 troops prepared for its delayed “spring” attack, according to Ukrainian intelligence.
A successful counteroffensive could change the course of the war and shift momentum in Ukraine’s favour. Experts believe that it could demonstrate to President Putin that the continued presence of Russian troops in neighbouring territory is untenable, and force his army to withdraw from the country.
However, Ukraine is concerned that meagre gains from a counteroffensive could see Western support wane, forcing Kyiv either to enter a prolonged period of low-level fighting, or to give up and enter peace negotiations.
James Cleverly, the British Foreign Secretary, reiterated support for President Zelensky on Thursday, saying “Ukraine’s rightful place is in Nato”.
French President Emmanuel Macron also urged Nato to offer Ukraine “tangible and credible” security assurances, arguing that it was in the West’s interests to do so as Kyiv “is today protecting Europe”.