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Ukrainian soldiers take part in trench warfare exercises at a British Army military base in Northern England on June 2.PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images

They say nothing. One by one, seven Ukrainian soldiers look directly into a camera and put a finger to their lips, even as gunfire is audible in the background.

The words “plans love silence” appear at the end of the video, which was posted online Sunday by Ukraine’s deputy minister of defence, Hanna Maliar. Then, an apparent reference to a long-anticipated counteroffensive aimed at liberated the Russian-occupied areas of the country: “There will be no announcement of the start,” it concludes.

The plea came after another night of Russian air attacks on Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, and as sporadic fighting continued in the Russian border region of Belgorod. A 2-year-old girl was killed and 22 others were wounded in the central Ukrainian city of Dnipro when an Iskander missile struck a residential area Saturday night.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that at least 500 Ukrainian children had been killed since the start of the Russian invasion in February, 2022, and that “many of them could have become famous scholars, artists, sports champions, contributing to Ukraine’s history.”

The figure, he said in a Telegram post, was one of the reasons Ukraine “must hold out and win this war!”

For weeks now, Ukrainian officials have been caught between trying to assure their citizens – as well as Kyiv’s allies in the West – that a counterattack is indeed coming, and trying to damp down speculation that they worry could help Russia prepare its defences.

Mr. Zelensky has himself wavered between reminding reporters at a press conference on Friday that “this is not a movie” and then himself adding to the almost Hollywood-level hype a day later when he told a Wall Street Journal interviewer that “we are ready” and “we can’t wait for months.”

The conditions do appear to now be in place for a Ukrainian attack that the country’s leadership hopes will drive Russian troops out of at least part of the roughly 15 per cent of Ukrainian territory they currently occupy.

Most, if not all, of the 150 Leopard and Challenger main battle tanks promised by Ukraine’s Western allies are now here and ready for use. Thousands of Ukrainian troops who travelled to Germany, Britain and Eastern Europe for training with NATO soldiers have returned. The ground in eastern and southern Ukraine – for months so muddy that heavy equipment could barely move – has been hardened by weeks of hot, dry weather.

Russian forces, meanwhile, have focused in recent weeks on digging defensive positions in anticipation of a major Ukrainian assault. “The enemy is concentrating its main efforts on defensive operations in all directions,” the Kyiv-based Centre for Defence Studies, which is run by former Ukrainian defence minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk, wrote in its daily update. The only major Russian offensive push, the centre wrote, was an attempt to complete the capture of the Donetsk region town of Maryinka.

“The Russian Ministry of Defense is hyper-focused on minor tactical battles, which underscores the Russian military command’s nervousness and uncertainty regarding the Defence Forces’ upcoming counteroffensive.”

Despite the rampant speculation, the only signs so far of a significant new phase in the war have come in the form of the escalated Russian air attacks and the repeated cross-border raids by Russian citizens fighting on Ukraine’s side in the war.

It’s unclear whether the fighting in Belgorod is a diversion, or the first stage in some broader Ukrainian military push. On Sunday, a man identifying himself as the commander of the Russian Volunteer Corps – one of two units of Russians fighting to topple President Vladimir Putin – appeared in a video with two Russian soldiers who were described as prisoners. One was lying on an operating table.

The man demanded that Belgorod Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov come unarmed to the village of Novaya Tavolzhanka – a few kilometres inside Russian territory – by 5 p.m. local time to negotiate the release of the prisoners.

“We will exchange them for the opportunity to hold few minutes’ conversation about the destiny of Russia, about that unnecessary bloody war which has been going on for a year and a half and which now continues on the territory of our motherland and yours,” the man says in the video.

Mr. Gladkov replied that he was willing to meet the fighters not in Novaya Tavolzhanka but in the nearby city of Shebekino “if they’re still alive.” Russia’s official TASS news service simultaneously reported that Russian troops were engaging “Ukrainian saboteurs” in Novaya Tavolzhanka.

Videos posted online by local residents appeared to show intense small-weapons fire in the area, with unidentified soldiers taking cover behind civilian homes. Earlier on Sunday, Mr. Gladkov said that two women had been killed by shelling in villages near the border, and that 4,000 people had been evacuated from the area.

Afterward, the man with the Volunteer Corps said that the group had captured more prisoners, and that since Mr. Gladkov hadn’t arrived at the designated meeting point, the prisoners would be transferred to Ukraine.

While Ukrainian officials have denied playing any direct role in the cross-border attacks, the fighting on Russian soil has the benefit of both lifting morale at home while forcing Russia to consider pulling troops from the frontline in eastern and southern Ukraine to defend their own territory for the first time in this 15-month-old war.

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