Ukraine braces for expected new Russian onslaught, with or without Western tanks
Along the front line, Ukrainian forces are wondering where Russia will strike next
Exactly where and when Russia will launch its expected next offensive no one can be sure, but Ukrainian soldier Volodymyr Tereshchenko wants to ensure any Russian he confronts regrets it.
Tereshchenko, a burly, bearded 50-year-old, is part of Ukraine's northern defensive line, tasked with securing the marshy, forested terrain along the border with Belarus and — more to the point — preventing Russian forces from making another assault on the capital Kyiv and other Ukrainan cities.
In the days after Russia's invasion last February, troops attempted to take Chernihiv, about 50 kilometres from Tereshchenko's position, with thousands of soldiers swarming through the area.
The Russians were eventually driven back, but not before inflicting heavy damage on the city and terrorizing its population.
CBC News visited the recently constructed complex of trenches and fortifications along the defensive line and spoke to soldiers and commanders.
"They [the Russians] are preparing for something, but we are also prepared," Tereshchenko said.
"We have mine fields here, the roads are also mined. And there are other [armoured] battalions ready to react if something will happen on the border. We have a plan for our defence."
Precisely where and when Russia's army will strike may be the most pressing question in Ukraine — along with whether Germany will permit the export of Leopard 2 heavy tanks by European nations so that Ukraine can strengthen its defences and possibly launch its own counter-offensive to recapture Russian-occupied territory.
Ukrainian military commanders have said they believe the chance of Russia invading through Belarus again is low, but remains a possibility.
The commander at the border fortifications is a masked soldier who asked CBC to use his nickname, Dunai, which is the name of a local river.
"Yes, we were under their occupation but we will never allow this to be repeated again," he said.
Along with a network of trenches, tank traps and concrete fortifications, the CBC team also saw several heavy machine nests, but no tanks or other heavy armour. Dunai insisted they are present but out of sight for security reasons.
The line of contact between Ukrainian and Russian forces is almost 900 kilometres long, stretching from the Belarus border to the Kherson region near the Black Sea in the south.
While the line has been more or less static since Ukraine's re-capture of the city of Kherson and the right bank of the Dnipro River in November, the notable exception has been around the Donbas city of Bakhmut.
It has seen ferocious fighting and bloody battles with heavy losses on both sides. Russian forces with the Wagner paramilitary group captured the nearby town of Soledar earlier in January, which was Russia's first victory in months.
But there have been constant and urgent warnings recently from Ukrainian officials that away from Bakhmut, the Kremlin has been building up large numbers of recently mobilized troops to try to regain the initiative elsewhere on the front.
Ukrainian government officials say they believe Russia mobilized between 200,000 and 300,000 troops in the fall, and held roughly half of them in reserve for an offensive in early 2023.
Over such a long front line, the concern is that a concentrated Russian attack in a single sector could overwhelm the Ukrainian positions.
"Russia is setting the stage for what it believes [will be a] decisive offensive against Ukraine," Ukrainian foreign minister Dymtro Kuleba told CBC News in an interview last week.
He noted it has become a race to see whether Ukraine can re-arm itself with enough technologically superior Western weaponry that it can launch its own counter-offensive before Russia strikes.
"So our task, and we appreciate every piece of support that is coming from our partners, is to prevail in this race," said Kuleba.
On Saturday, leaders in the Russian-occupied part of Zaporizhzhia announced what they said was the start of an "offensive."
On Sunday, they followed up with another claim to have taken "more advantageous ground and positions," according to Reuters.
Unverifiable reports from Russian military bloggers said the Kremlin's forces were on the edge of the Ukrainian-controlled town of Orikhiv, about 50 kilometres from the city of Zaporizhzhia.
In response, Ukraine's Defence Ministry released a video of what it said were Ukrainian strikes on Russian tank and infantry positions along with a statement denying the Russian advances.
Oleksiy Danilov of Ukraine's National Security and Defence Council also posted a warning on social media that along with a new military offensive, Russia will intensify its "information attacks."
"Poisonous information gases are released, which consist of lies, manipulations, fakes and disinformation," wrote Danilov.
Even though Vladimir Putin has formally declared all of Zaporizhzhia to be officially part of Russia, about 30 per cent, including its principal city, remains under Ukraine control.
The region is also the site of Europe's largest nuclear power plant, in the city of Enerhodar, which Russia occupies.
As such, Zaporizhzhia has also frequently been mentioned as a prime location for a Ukrainian counter-offensive this spring.
The city's population has suffered immensely during the war, enduring multiple Russian missile attacks and heavy civilian casualties.
CBC News visited a humanitarian aid station in Zaporizhzhia and met several families who recently left the Russian-occupied zone but still have relatives on the other side.
"My husband stayed there, on the front line," said a woman named Nadia from the village of Stepnohirsk. "He lives in our house now and feeds the dogs.
She said in spite of the Ukrainian denials, her husband told her the situation appears to be becoming more intense.
"It's booming. Every day. Every minute, it's just booming from artillery. For sure it became worse, for sure."
Another woman, Olena Bryk from the village of Kamianske, said even if the Russian attacks are increasing she doesn't think they will amount to much.
"I don't believe in their offensive. We are also lighting them up," she said. "And the whole world is helping us."
Wherever or however Russia tries to regain the initiative on the battlefield, the question of whether Ukraine will have the use of Western heavy armour remains paramount.
The country's leadership has been aggressively lobbying Western governments to provide them with dozens, if not hundreds, of German-made Leopard 2 tanks, but Germany must first authorize the transfers.
However, the much-anticipated announcement at the Friday meeting of the Ukraine Defence Contact Group in Ramstein never came, and ever since, Ukrainian leaders have been fuming, both privately and publicly.
Tanks essential for Ukraine's survival: MP
"How hard we should scream or how persuasive we should be so that we will get what we need to win this war?" Ukrainian MP Kira Rudik told CBC News in an interview.
Rudik, who heads the opposition Holos party in parliament, has been an outspoken advocate for Ukraine's integration into Europe.
She said she is convinced Vladimir Putin's forces are poised to launch a major attack and the Leopard 2 tanks are essential for Ukraine's survival.
"We should be prepared for Putin and his troops trying to have some kind of victory, any kind of victory. He needs to show something to his people."
Speaking on his Ukrainian language YouTube channel, Ukrainian military commentator and former air force colonel Oleh Zhdanov said he remained confident Germany's government would approve the transfer of the tanks.
"Right now, we have a Images/Mediasmall delay," said Zhdanov. "I think within the next month, Scholtz [the German chancellor] will be convinced."
Many Ukrainians fear their only chance to evict the Russian troops from their territory depends on it.