After months of stalemate, Vladimir Putin’s army is on the move again
The sound of artillery fire is never comforting. The knowledge that it is getting a tiny bit closer each day is particularly oppressive.
Now, the hyper awareness and tightness in the chest experienced by anyone standing on the Ukrainian side of the lines in Donbas recently has received official recognition.
Volodymr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, last week declared Russia’s long-awaited spring offensive had begun.
Other officials are bracing for something big around next month's anniversary of the invasion on Feb 24.
“This is a country obsessed by dates,” Oleksey Danilov, the secretary of the National Security and Defence Council, told The Times this week.
What is certain is that after months of stalemate, Vladimir Putin’s army is on the move again.
In the past few weeks, they have put in attacks along the southern front in the Zaporizhzhia region, in the south-eastern Donetsk region town of Vuhledar, as well as along the forested front line in Luhansk region.
What no one yet knows is which is the main threat.
The short odds are on the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Andreiy Chernyak, of Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, the GUR, said on Feb 1 that Putin, the Russian president, had given the order to capture all of Donbas by March. That fits with the Kremlin’s declared war aims.
And in the central Donetsk region, the raging battle for Bakhmut feels like the biggest danger.
For half a year, this modern-day battle of Verdun seemed to be going nowhere, with Wagner mercenaries losing hundreds if not thousands of men in doomed assaults on the city.
But over the past month, the sheer volume of Russian manpower has started to produce results.
The Ukrainians have been forced into several tactical withdrawals, including from the town of Soledar.
Of three supply roads, one has been cut, another is under constant fire and a third is open but also zeroed by Russian artillery.
Mr Zelensky this week ruled out a retreat, saying on Thursday: "No one will surrender Bakhmut.
"We will fight for as long as we can. We see Bakhmut as our fortress ... If we have accelerated supply of weapons, especially long-range ones, we will not only not move from Bakhmut, we will start to de-occupy Donbas, which has been occupied since 2014.”
But among many people on the ground in Donbas, there is a feeling that Ukraine will eventually have to withdraw to a new line of defence - just as it did when retreating from Severodonetsk last summer.
The small town of Chasiv Yar, the last stop before Bakhmut itself, is rapidly emptying as residents flee before it too becomes a battlefield.
It would be a bitter blow to Ukraine. But even capturing Bakhmut would not necessarily lead to a breakthrough, officials in Donbas have said.
“I don’t believe that,” said Oleksandr Honcharenko, the mayor of Kramatorsk, the largest Ukrainian-controlled town in Donetsk region, when asked if the loss of Bakhmut could threaten his own town.
“When the Russians took Liman last year, that was worrying. There was only the Siversky Donets river between them and us. To a large degree, the river saved us. This is not a similar situation.”
Mr Honcharenko said his confidence was based on faith in the Ukrainian armed forces. But he also has geographic grounds for feeling secure.
Kramatorsk and the neighbouring towns of Druzhkivka and Konstantinivka are separated from Bakhmut by a highland of formidable and heavily fortified ridges and valleys.
There is no sense of panic amongst the soldiers or civilians in the area. Just anticipation that the battle of attrition may have to move to a new line, where the dogged defence will continue. "There is no other way out," said Mr Honcharenko. "The only way Putin will stop is if he is defeated."
But Bakhmut, which has drawn in vast numbers of Ukrainian troops, tanks and other resources, may prove a diversion.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a US defence think tank, said on Friday that Russia’s main offensive effort would come further north, in the Luhansk region near the towns of Svatove and Kreminna.
Those two key junctions are currently in Russian hands, but have been the objective of a grinding Ukrainian advance since autumn.
A strike here might seek to catch the Ukrainians off balance in a less heavily defended area.
A Ukrainian officer based in Kharkiv told The Telegraph that intelligence showed the Russians were “getting ready” for a renewed offensive.
In an assessment that overlaps with the ISW’s prediction, he said they would probably attack from the east in an attempt to retake all the territory they lost to a Ukrainian counter-offensive in the region in September.
The first objective of that push would be to push the Ukrainians back from the critical supply line between Valyuki, a small town in Russia’s Belgorod region, to Svatove in Luhansk region.
They would then seek to cut the highway between Kharkiv and Izyum to interdict Ukrainian lines of supply to Donbas, he said. He said they did not have sufficient forces to attack Kharkiv city itself and doubted they would try.
There are plenty of options outside Donbas.
General Valeriy Zaluzhny, the chief of the Ukrainian military, warned before Christmas that the Russians could try to strike Kyiv from Belarus, as they did in February last year.
And the Ukrainian officer in Kharkiv told The Telegraph he would not be surprised to see a strike further north straight across the border, perhaps in the Sumy region. The region has seen almost daily cross-border shelling, but no fighting since the Russian retreat in March. “There are many places they could go,” he said.
But the wild card is in the south, said Kirill Mikhailov, an independent military researcher based in Kyiv.
“I don’t think they have the resources to do ‘February 24 redux’, an offensive on all fronts. But they’ve now got enough mobilised men to use them to hold the front lines, and concentrate their most experienced troops for a dangerous offensive in one area,” he said.
An attack on the southern front, which has been static for most of the war, would take advantage of the terrain and threaten the main supply routes to Ukrainian forces in Donbas.
“It’s tank country down there,” he said, referring to the largely open spaces of the Black Sea lowlands.
“But they would also have to cover a lot of ground. It is 50 to 60 kilometres from the current front line to the highway from Dnipro to Donetsk.”