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A fighter of the Russian Volunteer Corps poses on a seized armoured personnel carrier not far from the Russian border, on May 24. Russian nationals fighting on Ukraine's side hailed as a success a brazen mission to send groups of volunteers across the border into southern Russia and back.SERGEY BOBOK/AFP/Getty Images

For months, the front lines in the war for Ukraine hardly moved, even as tens of thousands of artillery shells were fired each day and casualty figures climbed relentlessly. But over the past week, the battlefront started to shift, even briefly moving onto Russian soil, as both sides braced for a long-expected Ukrainian counteroffensive.

The first redrawing of the battlefield map came Monday when Russia’s invading army claimed to have captured the strategic city of Bakhmut after a nine-month siege. While Russian propagandists have previously declared victory in Bakhmut – a city that once had a population of 70,000 and was known for its sparkling wines – Ukrainian authorities appeared to concede that this time the battle for the shattered city was truly over, at least for now.

It was the first significant gain by either side in 2023, despite a Russian offensive that largely foundered in the muddy fields of late winter and early spring.

But Ukrainian forces aren’t withdrawing from the fight for Bakhmut. Instead, they have begun a fresh push north and south of the city with the apparent intent of surrounding it and cutting off the Wagner Group mercenaries and regular Russian units who now occupy its remains.

Monday also saw a cross-border raid into Russia’s Belgorod region by two units of anti-Kremlin fighters, who torched a border post and seized several small towns. While Russia claimed to have regained control of the situation by Wednesday, the joint raid by the Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps (the latter is a far-right formation) will almost certainly force Moscow to redeploy troops away from eastern and southern Ukraine to contend with the possibility of further strikes into Russian territory. The Belgorod region came under attack again Friday, this time by artillery fired from the Ukrainian side of the border.

As Vladimir Putin’s 15-month-old invasion drifts increasingly off-script, the Kremlin is once again escalating its standoff with NATO – which Moscow says is indirectly fighting in Ukraine – by announcing the deployment of nuclear weapons in Belarus, an ally, for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

The northern stretch of Russia’s border with Ukraine appears to have been lightly guarded before this week’s incidents, with Kyiv having promised its allies that it would not use weapons supplied by the West to attack Russia itself. But the two units involved in the cross-border raid were made up of Russian citizens fighting on the side of Ukraine and set on toppling Mr. Putin.

“Ukraine fulfilled its obligations. Ukraine never attacked anyone. They are concentrated on liberating its territory. But sorry, we are Russians … We never took any obligations like this. We are in our own rights to liberate our land,” said Ilya Ponomarev, the political representative of the Freedom of Russia Legion, in an interview in Kyiv on Friday.

While the anti-Kremlin fighters have now withdrawn back to Ukraine, Mr. Ponomarev said forcing the Russian military to redeploy troops away from the occupied areas ahead of the counteroffensive “is a very significant contribution to Ukraine’s success.”

A major Ukrainian push, aimed at liberating the areas in the east and south of the country that are under Russian occupation, has been anticipated for several weeks now. Nearly all the promised Western military support for the operation – including dozens of main battle tanks provided by a coalition of NATO allies, including Canada – is believed to be in the country now and at the Ukrainian military’s disposal.

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Ukrainian soldiers ride a tank towards positions near Bakhmut, Ukraine, on May 23.Efrem Lukatsky/The Associated Press

On Thursday, a key member of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration suggested the counteroffensive may already be under way, even if not immediately visible.

“This is not a single event that will begin at a specific hour of a specific day with a solemn cutting of the red ribbon,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Mr. Zelensky’s chief of staff, wrote on Twitter.

“There are dozens of different actions to destroy the Russian occupation forces in different directions, which have already been taking place yesterday, are taking place today and will continue tomorrow,” he said, adding, “Intensive destruction of enemy logistics is also a counteroffensive.”

There have been a series of explosions well behind Russian lines in Ukraine this week, as well as a drone attack Thursday on the Russian city of Krasnodar, 200 kilometres east of the bridge that connects Russia with occupied Crimea.

Western military support to Ukraine has been particularly visible in recent days, as advanced air defence systems put on a show of prowess while defending against a wave of Russian missile attacks. Russia has fired 13 barrages of missiles and explosive drones at Ukrainian cities so far this month, including 10 cruise missiles and 20 drones that were launched at Kyiv and the central city of Dnipro early Friday morning.

Two people were killed and 30 injured when a missile struck a medical clinic in Dnipro. But the Ukrainian military said the vast majority of the projectiles fired this month – including several hypersonic Kinzhal missiles that Russia had claimed were unstoppable – had been knocked out of the sky before they could reach their intended targets.

Mr. Zelensky repeatedly highlighted the strategic value of Bakhmut during the epic battle for the city. If Russia were to control it, he said in March to justify his decision not to withdraw besieged Ukrainian troops, Russian forces would have an “open road” to the larger cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk that lie a short drive west of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region of southeastern Ukraine.

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Rescuers work at the site of a clinic heavily destroyed by a Russian missile strike in Dnipro, Ukraine, on May 26.Stringer ./Reuters

But the enormous effort to capture the city – Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin said his forces lost 20,000 fighters in the battle, a figure that did not include regular Russian troops – may have left Russian forces unable to push forward. On Thursday, Mr. Prigozhin said Wagner was withdrawing its troops from Bakhmut and handing the city over to reservist fighters from the regular Russian army.

“The Russians are exhausted. They cannot move forward or make offensive operations on the front,” said Oleksandr Musiienko, a Kyiv-based military analyst. “Putin says they have captured Bakhmut, but if you look at the situation, the Ukrainians are advancing on the northern and southern flanks. The flanks are located on the highlands, so Bakhmut could be a huge trap where Ukrainian forces can move forward and control the Russians with artillery fire.”

Mr. Musiienko said he would consider the Ukrainian counteroffensive a success if one or more cities were liberated from Russian occupation. But he cautioned against expecting the campaign to precipitate a swift end to the war.

Recent satellite images show Russian forces assuming a defensive posture along almost the entire front line in Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions. Washington-based open-source intelligence analyst Brady Africk mapped a network of trenches, tank traps and freshly dug firing positions that appear to show Russia bracing for a Ukrainian attack anywhere along the battlefront.

“I think it’s clear that Russian forces realized that Ukraine is capable of retaking large swaths of territory relatively quickly, as happened in Kherson and Kharkiv oblasts. This realization prompted a massive effort from Russian forces to retain the territory that they still occupy,” Mr. Africk told The Globe and Mail, referring to Ukrainian counteroffensives that liberated large areas seized by Russia at the outset of its February, 2022, invasion.

Beyond a potential push to retake Bakhmut, the most likely axis of counterattack is considered to be a thrust south from the city of Zaporizhzhia toward the Sea of Azov coast. If successful, the move would cut the Russian-occupied areas in two and make it difficult for Russia to continue supplying Crimea, which it has occupied since a stealth military takeover in 2014.

Mr. Africk saw extensive Russian preparations to defend Crimea as well, including trenches, bunkers and concrete barriers on the peninsula’s beaches to ward off any attempted amphibious assault.

Mr. Musiienko said Russian forces were clearly “afraid” of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. “They don’t know where the main punch will be.” He said the Russian move to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus is an effort to raise the stakes and convince NATO to pressure Ukraine into calling off its push to liberate more Russian-occupied territory.

On Friday, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev – now the deputy head of the country’s Security Council – accused the West of planning to supply Ukraine with nuclear weapons, a proposal no Western country has made publicly. He warned that “there will have to be a pre-emptive strike” if Russia believed Ukraine was on the verge of becoming a nuclear power.