Miles of empty fields where you might expect a build-up of armor. Tank tracks that emerge in the mud from nowhere, and lead there too. Distant artillery duels that locals say peak and ebb.
The silence is beginning to be telling. Ukraine has made extraordinary efforts to conceal the start of its strategically vital counteroffensive. Like with its fast and smart push around Izyum and Kharkiv in the late summer last year, we may only learn of success once it has been conclusively achieved.
Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar stated last week that the counteroffensive would not be announced.
Russia, for its part, is also reluctant to speak of Ukrainian momentum, perhaps in case that shatters flaky morale among its own troops; little, too, has emerged from its side. Just Sunday, the US-based Institute for the Study of War reported comments by Russian military bloggers suggesting that Ukrainian forces had crossed the Dnipro River near Kherson – in small numbers, but in places where Moscow would prefer to think they were not.
It was unclear how sustained or unprecedented the apparent small Ukrainian landings were, or how they fitted in to Ukraine’s wider plan. Ukraine’s Southern Command said little but opaquely called for “patience.” Its spokesperson, Natalia Humeniuk, said: “The conditions of the military operation require information silence until it is safe enough for our military.”
Over the past 10 days, Ukraine has been noticeably silent about the whole Zaporizhzhia area where its counteroffensive is largely expected. Only there can its military separate the occupied peninsula of Crimea from occupied territory in eastern Ukraine and the Russian mainland.
There have been tiny comments from Russia’s legion of military bloggers who have been, given the tight operational security deployed by Kyiv, often the first source of information about Ukrainian maneuvers in the past offensives. Kopani, Marfopil, Kamianske, Polohy – these are all places where pro-Russian bloggers have suggested Ukrainian attempts to move forward. The evidence for these claims is frustratingly unclear, and bloggers have a poor track record.
Russian aviation is also trying to hit what it thinks are Ukrainian targets. The town of Orikhiv, about 40 miles southeast of Zaporizhzhia, has seen the repeated bombardment of anything that might resemble a military hub: a sports school, a farming warehouse - empty buildings now featuring a vast crater. The tiny settlement of Vuhledar, on the further eastern end of where Ukraine might launch a counteroffensive in the south, has been hit by several heavy airstrikes in the past 48 hours.