Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine CNN—
Columns of dozens of American M-ATVs kept coming, ahead of the police patrol car, flashing lights and their tails from dozens of muddy, civilian saloons. Where isarmored vehicleswere ultimately intended was not clear. But they were still beige - the color they would have had for use in Iraq and Afghanistan - suggesting they were shared by at least one can of spray or mud to be ready for frontline use.
During five weeks of reporting along the southern front, it became difficult to see that - at least in the limited, preparatory stages -Ukrainian counterattackit has not yet started at the end of April.
Ruthless precision bombing of Russian military targets. indications of a small Ukrainian landing along the occupied eastern bank of the Dnieper River; and explosions that hit fuel depots and infrastructure within Russian borders and in occupied cities – all of these could be taken as indicators.
Also, we saw a helicopter attack on a Russian target. persistent signals from the occupied officials for Ukrainian reconnaissance attacks along the front line of Zaporozhye and the evacuation of the civilian population in the occupied areas.
The signs have accelerated over the past month and point to a "shaping operation" that a senior US official told CNN began last week. However, the Ukrainian counter-offensive has not officially started yet.
Indications have grown that the expected offensive by Ukraine may be underway.
Given the amount of US and NATO material, advice and training that has gone into this operation – with a senior US official recently telling Congress that the US has instructed Kiev on how to “surprise” – it seems fair to assume that this delay declared the start The attack is a tactic, not a product of Ukraine's chaos, disorganization and a relatively wet April that leaves the ground very soft.
The announcement of the launch is entirely a gift from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Declare the operation in progress and the clock immediately ticks for the first results. Let's just say it hasn't started yet, and all the mounting losses Russia is suffering are just cutting and pushing back the normal wear and tear of the front line. Last month, Zelensky's cryptic comments that the "first important steps" of the operation would "happen soon" or that it would take "a little more time" just doubled down on Kiev's initial promise not to announce its launch.
We will probably know that the counter-offensive has started only when its first tangible results are shown. A lot of what happens is not shown publicly.
The goal of this confusion is clearly to keep Moscow off balance, unable to assess whether each new attack by Ukrainian forces is "this" or just another probe.
Recent attacks aroundBahamutare indicative elements. The leader of the Russian mercenary group Wagner Yevgeny Prigozhin spent 10 days in a convoluted conversation mostly with himself on Telegram, warning of the collapse of Wagner without more artillery shells from the Russian top. He has received almost no official public response to his appeals, and it is unclear whether any of the Russian Defense Ministry's supply patterns have changed.
Ukrainian troops target Russian fighters with mortars near the city of Soledar, in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk region.
Prigozhin's remarkable survival after this period of public criticism from the Kremlin people is an expression of need and fear: Putin may fear the backlash of removing Prigozhin, and he also needs Wagner's forces to hold his ground. He may still need Prigozhin as an obstacle to a strong army. As with so much Kremlinology, the truth is currently unknown, but it doesn't really matter.
What is crucial is the subsequent display of shocking disunity in Putin's ranks – something unthinkable in February 2022. Prigozhin's outburst has so far led to only minor territorial shifts in control around the symbolic city of Bakhmut.
But more importantly, it revealed a seismic difference in how Russian and Ukrainian weapons of war operate.
Until now, Kiev has managed to hide its intentions, preparations and all false starts. The Ukrainians seem to have the patience and ability to keep their plan confidential enough to methodically implement it. Instead, Moscow completely paraded its dysfunctionality. This will be crucial in the coming weeks: Moscow seems to be handling bad news very poorly and publicly.
Until now, most of the information we have had about the operations in Ukraine has come from pro-Russian occupation officials and military bloggers. Sometimes it can be deliberate misinformation.
When Russian sources warned this summer that Russian troops were surrounded in Liman, it was likely a ruse designed to divert attention from Moscow with a peaceful retreat. But in other cases, their online discussion of politics and foibles projects chaos into classes that clearly don't need it. TheRussian retreat from Khersonit was another striking example of conflicting messages from high officials.
A satellite image shows collapsed university buildings and a radio tower in Bakhmut this week.
However, as with the turmoil surrounding Wagner and Bakhmut, the jumble of their messages around it cannot always be rationally explained away as a deliberate fog of misinformation. Nobody wants to look this disheveled when front line morale must be this low.
In the coming weeks, we are likely to see more confusion about what Ukraine is doing. Attacks on specific and important Russian targets, deeper inside the occupied territories, could accelerate the pace and ferocity, becauseapparent missile attacksin large buildings in closed spacesLuhansk.
We could also see more obvious Ukrainian false starts along the 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) front line. According to the West, Ukraine must make occupied Kherson still appear vulnerable to a major amphibious assault along the Dnieper River. and to the east, Bakhmut must still seem precariously threatened with its city surrounded by a renewed Ukrainian advance. And between these two sides, the vast southern front of Russian-controlled Zaporozhye must also remain vulnerable to the rapid advance of better-equipped and more precisely trained NATO forces through Russian fortifications.
Moscow cannot afford to lose on any of those three fronts. But he may be forced to choose - to set priorities - and with that choice will come the first danger of a wider strategic defeat for Putin.
Lose any of these occupation "prizes" and the whole project will look weaker than when the Kremlin had to admit, for whatever reason, that it had been attacked by drones in the heart of Moscow. A public, strategic loss could put the Russian ranks at risk of general panic and collapse.
Zelensky's most characteristic comments about the operation were perhaps his repeated and clarion call for more Western weapons: he said victory was assured, but that without better equipment, more Ukrainian lives would be lost sooner. This is the key principle of the campaign in Kyiv so far: the sanctity of Ukrainian life. Their losses are undoubtedly considerable, but they accept them much less than the enemy.
An all-out attack on weakened Russian positions – where supply chains, command and morale are likely to be weak – is possible from Kiev at any time. However, several weeks of Russian confusion, hyperbole and public self-criticism are likely to reduce Kiev's ultimate human cost.
While Moscow's mixed messages may herald rare signs of internal fissures, Kiev's messages are a sign of purposefulness and determination.