Russia is mobilizing a huge contingent of troops and is planning an offensive to coincide with the first anniversary of the war on Feb. 24, Ukraine’s defence minister says.

Speaking Wednesday evening on the French news channel BFM TV during a visit to Paris, Oleksii Reznikov said the Ukraine military believes that the number of Russian troops amassing along the border and in occupied territories is approaching 500,000 – far more than the general mobilization of 300,000 that Russia revealed in September.

“We do not underestimate our enemy,” Mr. Reznikov said. “Officially, they announced 300,000, but we see the troops at the borders; according to our assessments, it is much more.”

He said the Russian offensive probably would come from Ukraine’s east, the scene of intensive fighting in recent weeks, and the south. “We think that, given that [Russia] lives in symbolism, they will try something around Feb. 24,” he said, adding, “We keep telling our partners that we have to be ready for this as quickly as possible, and that’s why we need weapons.”

Mr. Reznikov was in France to secure the purchase of French air-defence radar and to meet French President Emmanuel Macron, part of Ukraine’s campaign to seek the most lethal NATO-standard weapons as the war grinds on. While Mr. Macron has not ruled out sending French-build fighter jets to Ukraine, so far, the United States has ruled out doing so.

However, several NATO countries, including Germany, the United States, U.K., Poland and Canada, have agreed to deliver to Ukraine dozens of their most advanced main battle tanks, including Leopard 2s, a process that could take several months.

Mr. Reznikov’s warning of the Russian buildup for an offensive came as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky used a Wednesday evening video address to say that the war in the eastern province of Donetsk was becoming bloodier by the day. “A definite increase has been noted in the offensive operations of the occupiers on the front in the east of our country,” he said. “The situation is becoming tougher.”

Late on Wednesday, a Russian missile destroyed an apartment building in the city of Kramatorsk, in the northern region of Donetsk province, killing three residents and injuring 20, local police said. The number of dead and wounded is expected to rise as rescuers sift through the rubble.

“The only way to stop Russian terrorism is to defeat it,” Mr. Zelensky said in a tweet after the attack. “By tanks. Fighter jets. Long-range missiles.”

In January, at least 44 people died when a Russian missile hit an apartment building in the city of Dnipro, in central Ukraine.

NATO has not released a new estimate of the Russian troop build-up, but the military alliance’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, earlier this week in South Korea said that Russian President Vladimir Putin retains his “maximalist goals” in Ukraine. “And most of all, we have seen no sign that President Putin has changed his overall goal of this invasion, that is to control a neighbour, to control Ukraine,” he said. “So as long as this is the case, we need to be prepared for the long haul.”

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a think-tank in Washington, recently said that Russia is getting ready for an “imminent offensive,” citing the information it gathered from Western, Ukrainian and Russian sources.

Mr. Zelensky is expected to make a plea for more weapons at the European Union-Ukraine summit in Kyiv on Friday. More than a dozen top EU officials, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Josep Borrell, the top diplomat, began to arrive in the Ukrainian capital on Thursday.

The summit is designed to show the EU’s solidarity with Ukraine but is not expected to make a breakthrough in fast-tracking Ukraine’s EU membership.

The EU’s energy support for Ukraine is expected to be on the agenda as well as continued financial support. The EU has agreed to provide €18-billion in support in 2023. Ukraine’s finance minister, Sergii Marchenko, has said that Ukraine has been running a US$5-billion budget deficit since last March.

The Globe and Mail, February 2, 2023