Russia has intensified its bombardment of Ukraine, launching one of the most brutal attacks since the war began nearly two years ago.

Russia has intensified its bombardment of Ukraine, launching one of the most brutal attacks since the war began nearly two years ago.

A total of 158 missiles and kamikaze drones were fired towards six cities over the weekend, reported The Times, with targets including a maternity hospital and a kindergarten. At least four civilians were killed and almost 100 injured, according to UN estimates. The head of the Ukrainian air force said it was the largest missile attack of the war so far.

On Tuesday, Russia fired “a second massive barrage” on Kyiv, said the Financial Times. Ukraine has also “hit back”, said BBC News, with attacks on the Russian city of Belgorod that have left 25 dead. In a New Year message, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia would “feel the wrath” of Ukraine’s military in 2024.

Vladimir Putin is “buoyed by Ukraine’s failed counteroffensive and flagging Western support”, said The New York Times (NYT) last month. But “in a recent push of back-channel diplomacy”, the Russian leader “has been sending a different message”, added the paper. “He is ready to make a deal.”

Ttwo former senior Russian officials told the NYT that Putin had been “signalling” that he was “open to a ceasefire that freezes the fighting along the current lines, far short of his ambitions to dominate Ukraine”.

What the papers said

“Russia has stockpiled missiles for a winter campaign designed to sap the morale of Ukrainians,” said The Times’s defence correspondent George Grylls in Kyiv. Ukraine’s defence minister told the paper that it was “obvious” that Russia will continue attacking.

+++++

But domestic support for the invasion seems to be ebbing. About half of Russians want the war to end in 2024, according to a poll by Russian Field published on Friday. The number who fully support the war has almost halved since February last year, independent polling organisation Chronicle found.

The survey, published in December, “revealed that those who favour peace far outnumber pro-war voices”, said Euronews. This is despite the “notoriously difficult” nature of polling in authoritarian states, especially as Moscow has “criminalised criticism of the war and spends millions on pro-war propaganda”. Independent Russian polling company Levada found in November that the majority of Russians would support peace talks.

The Kremlin is “likely concerned” about the impact of public opinion on Russia’s 2024 presidential election, according to an analysis of Chronicle’s findings by US think-tank The Institute for the Study of War. Dissent is growing over mass conscription and poor medical care for soldiers. According to recent US intelligence estimates, Russia has lost “nearly 90%” of the personnel it had when the conflict began, Reuters reported.

Meanwhile, a grass-roots movement has been “gaining momentum” recently, said The Guardian. The movement is led by wives and mothers of some of the 300,000 Russians conscripted in September 2022, an event that triggered a “wave of anxiety and unrest” – and the biggest fall in Putin’s ratings since he came to power in 1999. The Russian leader is known to care deeply about such metrics.

Many are “staging public protests”, said the paper, and calling for “total demobilisation” of civilian fighters. During the first Chechen war in 1994, a similar anti-war movement of wives and mothers “helped turn public opinion against the conflict and played a role in the Kremlin’s decision to stop the fighting”.

At the moment, Putin “sees a confluence of factors creating an opportune moment” for a ceasefire, officials told the NYT – a stalemate on the battlefield; Ukraine’s stalled counteroffensive; its “flagging support in the West”; and the “distraction” of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.

Although the Kremlin “needs a ceasefire”, it is “determined to achieve this on favourable terms”, wrote Pavel Luzin, senior fellow with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), in November. These terms include keeping control over all disputed Ukrainian territory.

However, there is “no evidence” that Ukraine’s leaders – who have vowed to retake their territory – would accept such a deal, said the NYT. Ukraine has been “rallying support for its own peace formula”, which would require Moscow to surrender captured territory and pay damages.

Zelenskyy said on Tuesday that he saw no sign that Russia was willing to negotiate. “We just see brazen willingness to kill,” he said.

What next?

Some argue that Putin “wants to delay any negotiation until a possible return to office” by former US president Donald Trump, said the NYT. But others say the “ideal timing” of any ceasefire would be before Russia’s presidential election in March.

Nevertheless, wrote political scientist Luzin, “as during the initial phase of Russia’s war of aggression from 2014-2022, there is no doubt that Russia would continue to strike Ukraine even after a ceasefire”.

+++++

President Joe Biden plans to mark three years since the 2021 Capitol riot with a speech at Valley Forge, where George Washington staged American troops during the Revolutionary War.

His remarks in Pennsylvania on Saturday are intended to frame the 2024 presidential election as a fight for democracy. Mr. Biden’s reelection campaign said he will also be making a speech next week at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the site of the 2015 shooting by a white supremacist. There, Mr. Biden aims to draw a contrast with former President Donald Trump and the “anti-freedom agenda” of his “[Make America Great Again] apostles,” the Biden campaign says.

“When Joe Biden ran for president four years ago, he said we are in a ‘battle for the soul of America,’ and as we look towards November 2024, we still are,” Biden campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez said during a campaign strategy briefing on Wednesday.

Trump was the primary focus of the briefing by top Biden campaign officials, who mentioned him more than a dozen times during a session that lasted under 30 minutes.

“The threat that Donald Trump posed in 2020 to American democracy has only grown more dire in the years since,” Chavez Rodriguez said, adding the Biden reelection campaign is being run like the “fate of our democracy depends on it — because it does.”

Two weeks before the first Republican presidential primary contest in Iowa, Biden campaign communications director Michael Tyler said if another Republican presidential candidate besides Trump wins the nomination, the candidate will “have done so by hard tacking to the most extreme positions that we have seen in recent American history.”

“Obviously, we have Donald Trump out here promising to rule as a dictator on day one, but every last one—[Nikki] Haley, [Ron] DeSantis—they’re about extreme abortion bans,” Tyler said, in addition to noting Haley’s recent campaign trail omission of slavery as a cause of the Civil War.

The Biden campaign did not say if or when the pace of Mr. Biden’s campaign trail appearances will pick up, but campaign sources have told CBS News the sitting president’s travel will mostly focus on official White House duties until an official Republican presidential nominee emerges.

Campaign officials said the president and Vice President Kamala Harris on Jan. 22 will use the 51st anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade, which granted abortion access nationwide until it was struck down in 2022, to make clear that the Biden campaign focus on “freedom” isn’t just rhetoric. The campaign also plans to point out book banning, criticize corporate interests and stress the importance of free and fair elections.