While many observers in the West are waiting for the big tank battle in Ukraine, there are many indications that the long-heralded counter-offensive has already begun elsewhere. An unprecedented series of drone and sabotage attacks is currently hitting south-west Russia and Moscow-held areas of Ukraine.
The headlines recently belonged to an alleged drone attack on the Kremlin. But while this attack still raises many questions and there is no evidence of Kiev's alleged involvement, the attacks on objects in south-west Russia and the Moscow-held Crimean peninsula on the Black Sea follow a clear logic: the aim is to destroy the supply lines for the Russians occupying forces in Ukraine.
Destruction of fuel depots
To this end, rails were blown up in the Bryansk region and two freight trains derailed. A fuel depot in Crimea that was used to supply the Russian Black Sea fleet exploded at the weekend.
On Wednesday, across from the Russian-annexed peninsula in Krasnodar Oblast, another fuel depot at a transhipment terminal for oil and oil products caught fire. More than 200 firefighters fought the flames for 17 hours. 20,000 cubic meters of fuel flared off.
And 24 hours later, also in the Krasnodar region, the tank farm of an oil refinery caught fire. A drone attack at the same time on a refinery in the Rostov region of Russia ended lightly.
"The planned destruction of our fuel depots in the run-up to the strategic offensive of the Ukrainian armed forces is under way in order to deprive our forces of fuel," complained far-right former Duma deputy Viktor Alksnis on his Telegram channel. At the same time, he accused the Russian army of not bombing the Ukrainian reserves with similar determination. "Overall, there is no shortage of fuel in Ukraine," he stated.
Military Economist: Second phase of the offensive
According to the German military economist Marcus Keupp, the second phase of the offensive has begun after the vulnerabilities have been identified, for example using satellite images. With artillery and drone fire, the supply of the enemy troops in the rear is interrupted. Only in the third phase is it about destroying the massive Russian defenses that they have built in the occupied areas of Ukraine near the front, in order to then advance with tanks. "So that means it will be the end, not the beginning," he said on Deutschlandfunk.
According to NATO officials, Ukraine is "98 percent" prepared for this visible advance, which can then be shown in the reclaiming of territories. The Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov also sees himself close to the "home straight". Kiev has received hundreds of tanks and armored personnel carriers, howitzers, rocket launchers, anti-aircraft defense systems and tons of ammunition. Up to 80,000 soldiers - according to Russian sources even far more - are said to have been specially trained for this offensive operation, some in NATO countries, and are ready.
Between doubt and confidence
But doubts about the success of the spring offensive were raised in the West after leaks of information from the US secret service. Kiev is still confident. "I very much believe that it will be successful and that we can liberate our territories," President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently told Scandinavian journalists.
However, the long pause since the successful operations in the fall and the tank deliveries that had to be wrested from the western allies with great difficulty have built up enormous pressure. "We need a win," admitted the 45-year-old.
In general, the main push of the Ukrainian army is expected in the Zaporizhia region in the direction of Tokmak and then on to Melitopol and the Sea of Azov. This is intended to drive a wedge between the Russian troops and separate Crimea from the land bridge to Russia. The exiled mayor of Melitopol, Ivan Fedorov, reports almost daily about Ukrainian rocket attacks against depots and command centers of the Russian army in the region. The occupation authorities partially confirm this.
Ukrainian units have also repeatedly tested the strength of the massively expanded Russian defense lines between Orekhiv and Huljajpole. Occupation representative Vladimir Rogov has long said that Ukrainian reserves will be transferred to this section of the front. But where would be the surprise then?
Are you going to Mariupol?
Therefore, some Russian commanders expect a Ukrainian advance on the port city of Mariupol in the Donetsk region, which was captured by Russia a year ago. A recapture of the city in the southeast of the country serves several purposes. "This is an immediate threat to Donetsk, an invaluable political effect and cuts the land corridor to Crimea," wrote pro-Russia separatist commander Alexander Khodakovsky on Telegram. Local knowledge, a partially loyal population and a lack of Russian forces for a second conquest could, from Kiev's point of view, speak in favor of heading towards Mariupol.
But there are also rumors of a continuation of the autumn offensive in the north in the Luhansk region or even an attack on Russian territory after Belgorod, only to then be exchanged for Ukrainian territory. The wild speculation shows that at least secrecy has worked well on the Kiev side so far.
Nevertheless, at least Keupp is convinced that things are heading south. The goal for Kiev is to recapture Crimea. To do this, the Ukrainian army would have to advance to a point on the coast from where all targets on the peninsula could be reached with drones and long-range artillery. So the Russian troops could be forced to withdraw at some point, says Keupp.