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As Ukraine invasion anniversary nears, Russia is girding for 'revenge'?

The Manila Times logo The Manila Times 03/02/2023 Yen Makabenta
Ukrainian soldiers inspect a damaged military vehicle after fighting in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022. The city authorities said that Ukrainian forces engaged in fighting with Russian troops that entered the country's second-largest city on Sunday. AP PHOTO © Provided by The Manila Times Ukrainian soldiers inspect a damaged military vehicle after fighting in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022. The city authorities said that Ukrainian forces engaged in fighting with Russian troops that entered the country's second-largest city on Sunday. AP PHOTO

First word

SHOULD the anniversary of a war be approached with more solemnity and gravity than the ordinary events or happenings in our lives or in humanity's story? The thought came to mind as I noted in my notebook that Friday, February 24, will mark the first full year of the Russia-Ukraine war, counting from the evening of Feb. 23, 2022, when Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine.

It is not, I say, facetious to liken an event as deadly and serious as war to a boxing match. A boxing match, wherein titles and major purses are at stake, can be as momentous as the outcomes of military conflict.

Foreman vs Ali title fight

Take for example the heavyweight title fight between world champion George Foreman and his challenger, Muhammad Ali, which took place on Oct. 30, 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). The event was attended by 60,000 people.

The Foreman-Ali fight has been called "arguably the greatest sporting event of the 20th century" and was a major upset, with Ali coming in as a 4-1 underdog against the unbeaten, heavy-hitting Foreman. The fight is famous for Ali's introduction of the rope-a-dope tactics as part of his defense.

Some sources estimate that the fight was watched by as many as 1 billion television viewers around the world, thus becoming the world's most-watched live television broadcast at the time. This included a record estimated 50 million viewers watching the fight on pay-per-view or closed-circuit theater TV. The fight grossed an estimated $100 million (inflation-adjusted $500 million) in worldwide revenue.

Foreman went into the ring as the clear 4 to 1 favorite of those who knew boxing. Ali in turn was the sentimental favorite of millions of boxing fans who liked his looks and his versified taunts of Foreman.

When the fight started, Foreman began by doing most of the punching, while Ali spent his time thwarting his blows. After several rounds of the seemingly one-sided spectacle, the tide perceptibly began to change. Foreman tired himself out by throwing too many punches that hit only air. Suddenly, Ali sprang to action; he started punching Foreman back, and in no time turned the fight completely around. In the eighth round, Ali knocked Foreman down and out.

Ali was crowned heavyweight champion of the world, and soon claimed his self-made title as "the greatest."

Mirror image of boxing fight

The Russia-Ukraine war can be fairly described as the mirror image of the Foreman-Ali fight because it looks like a one-sided contest in favor of Russia that is turning out to be the reverse.

The war began with Russian forces swarming all over Ukraine and its armed forces. It was generally projected by military experts and observers, and by Russia itself, that the war would be over in just a few weeks. Russia took control quickly of two provinces in Eastern Ukraine. But then Ukraine resistance was courageous and unyielding, and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and its member states rallied strongly in support of Ukraine, and poured military and economic aid into the besieged nation. The United States and NATO countries imposed economic sanctions on Russia that soon hobbled the Russian economy.

Russia's advance onto Ukraine territory was effectively halted by the combination of fierce Ukraine resistance and unstinting Western support for Ukraine. Before long, Russia was giving back its early gains from the invasion, and the war edged toward the border Russia shares with Ukraine.

On the eve of the first anniversary of the war, neither side is clearly winning, and the relation of forces has clearly changed. Russia's once dominant position is in doubt, and Ukraine no longer looks like David with only a slingshot as his weapon.

It is oddly Russia the invader that is thirsting for revenge, and not Ukraine, the object of invasion.

Russia massing troops

The AFP (Agence France-Presse) reported on February 3 a warning by Ukraine that Moscow was regrouping hundreds of thousands of troops on the border for a massive new offensive, just weeks before the first anniversary of the invasion on February 24.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave a stark message to the West when he predicted that the Kremlin was building up its forces to take "revenge."

"Now Russia is concentrating its forces. We all know that. It is preparing to try to take revenge, not only against Ukraine, but against a free Europe and the free world," Zelenskyy said at a press conference alongside European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, as reported by AFP.

Ukrainian senior defense officials are worried that the Russian military is preparing for a soon-to-come assault aimed at turning the war in the Kremlin's favor.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told French media that Russia had 500,000 troops ready for an attack to come in weeks, a number that is far higher than the 300,000 newly enlisted soldiers Putin called up in the autumn.

Western and Ukrainian officials have long warned that Russia is planning a renewed spring offensive after a series of embarrassing defeats in summer and fall, and a near stalemate over the winter.

But the warnings are picking up ahead of the war's first anniversary on February 24.

Russia is mustering its military might in the Luhansk region of Ukraine, AP (The Associated Press) reported on February 2.

Elsewhere, the Kremlin's forces were expelling residents near the Russian-held parts of the front line so they can't tell Ukrainian artillery forces about Russian troop deployments, Luhansk Gov. Serhiy 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.

The Institute for the Study of War predicted "an imminent Russian offensive in the coming months." Some predict it will coincide with the invasion anniversary on February 24.

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

Donetsk and Luhansk provinces make up the Donbas, an industrial region bordering Russia that Putin identified as a goal for takeover from the war's outset and where Moscow-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian forces since 2014.

Donetsk was one of four provinces that Russia illegally annexed in the fall, but controls only about half of it. To take the remaining half, Russian forces have no choice but to go through Bakhmut, the only approach to bigger Ukrainian-held cities. Russian forces have been trying for months to capture Bakhmut.

Ukraine is keen to secure more Western military aid to fend off much larger Russian forces. It has already won pledges of tanks and now wants more.

'Crimea will be retaken'

Ukraine's intelligence chief, who predicted Russia's invasion and is predicting Russia's defeat in the war, is the subject of an engrossing story in a Washington Post January 31 report:

"Hours before all of his warnings about a Russian invasion were proved spot-on, Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine's military intelligence boss, moved his wife into his office, fearing that the worst would not indeed happen.

"It was February 23 — the night before Russia launched its war on Ukraine — and Budanov had staked his career on being the rare Ukrainian official who was convinced that Russia was about to attack and attempt to capture Kyiv, the capital.

"He and his wife stared at the clock that night, anxious that Budanov could soon be out of work if all did not go as he had loudly predicted to Ukraine's skeptical political leadership.

"Eleven months later, the 37-year-old Budanov's words carry serious weight with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and others in Kyiv. In Ukrainian political circles, he is respected as the one person — along with US and British intelligence — who correctly warned months in advance what Russia was planning.

"At the time, he was largely brushed off. Most other Ukrainian government and military officials expected Russia's invasion to be limited to the eastern part of the country rather than a full scale, three-pronged attack.

"Budanov's forecast for this year is that Russia will focus on occupying more territory in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions. A renewed offensive from its forces stationed north of Ukraine, in Belarus, is unlikely, he said, and just an attempt to distract and divide Kyiv's troops. He also said that 'we must do everything to ensure that Crimea returns home by summer.'

"Asked if he thinks Ukrainian troops reaching Crimea, which Russia invaded and annexed illegally in 2014, could trigger Russian President Vladimir Putin to use a nuclear weapon, Budanov said: 'This is not true. And Crimea will be returned to us. I'll tell you more: It all started in Crimea in 2014, and it will all end there.'

"'It's a scare tactic,' he added, speaking in his office, where he keeps a pet frog. 'Russia is a country that you can expect a lot from but not outright idiocy. Sorry, but it's not going to happen. Carrying out a nuclear strike will result in not just a military defeat for Russia but the collapse of Russia. And they know this very well.'"

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