Ukraine has been rapidly integrating combat jets sent from Eastern Europe to provide secure air power before launching a major counter-offensive, military sources have disclosed.
Kyiv’s armoured brigades are now readying for a weakness in the Russian front line before striking, potentially next week, analysts said.
The latest satellite imagery and geolocated intelligence is showing that Ukraine’s main incursions are occurring south of Donetsk and around the besieged town of Bakhmut.
With its pilots only just starting training on US-made F-16 fighters, Ukraine’s air force was relying on the delivery of more than 30 MiG-29 fighters from Poland and Slovakia before it could commence operations.
Orysia Lutsevych, a Ukraine expert at the Chatham House think tank who recently returned from a trip to Kyiv, said that having sufficient air protection was the “main bottleneck in planning this counter offensive”.
“Military personnel have told me this is a very dangerous and bold operation, partially because Ukraine doesn't have fully integrated capabilities to protect Ukrainian troops from [the] air, so they have been waiting for the MiG integration.”
She added that “no sensible Nato general” would send troops into major combat without sufficient air protection.
“Audiences in the West should understand that Ukraine will be doing counter-offensive in very challenging conditions.” It is understood that the air force can field up to 100 fighters that will be vulnerable to more advanced Russian models as well as ground defences.
Key to Ukraine’s success will be surprise as to where and when they strike, with analysts telling The National that the country has gone into communication lockdown.
“The Ukrainians are encouraging a regime of silence,” said Alexander Lord, lead Ukraine analyst at Sibylline intelligence company.
“The open source intelligence is only coming from Russian sources as the Ukrainians have placed significant emphasis on operational security and are very much trying to prevent people from divulging any information that may be pertinent to the ongoing offensive.”
Experts now have to rely on Russian military bloggers, including some that “aren't afraid to report on their military failures”, he added.
Another model using satellites that circle over Ukraine twice a day using thermal imaging to detect high-temperature events, produced by The Economist, currently shows just two major hot spots near Donetsk and Bakhmut.
In the coming days Kyiv’s strategists may well seek to steadily increase those on several points along the front line before generating a break-out through the deep Russian defences of trenches, barbed wire and minefields.
“The Ukrainian strategy will retain pretty dynamic planning, open to change depending on the overall strength of the Russians, being ready to reinforce success with their modern armoured brigades,” Mr Lord said. “That could come in days or even next week.”
It is only when footage is posted online showing the modern Leopard and Challenger tanks along with Bradley infantry fighting vehicles that it will be known the Ukrainians have decided to make a major commitment to the attack.
The fall-out from the burst Khakovka dam will also provide a long protective flank making it hard to attack Crimea.
Additionally, Kyiv's generals have been waiting for the ground to dry out after heavy spring rain to prevent their heavy armour getting bogged down in mud while under fire.
Gen David Petraeus, the former commander of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, said it would become very clear when the major attack happens.
“When the real main effort is launched, we will see it,” he told the BBC. “We're talking about tens of thousands of troops and many brigades’ worth of western armour.
He added that a major combat engineer operation would take place that will crack the lines, adding: “I think the Russians will prove to be quite brittle.”