EARLIER this week I was in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Maybe it’s just me but there’s something very “Russian” about the city. The streets are wider than other Ukrainian cities I’ve been in, the buildings have more of a Soviet-era feel and then there are the murals, many depicting the heroes of the former communist state, among them Yuri Gagarin the cosmonaut who became the first human to journey into space.

Sitting only 25 or so miles from the Russian border, Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second-largest city with 1.5 million inhabitants. Located in the country’s northeast, it remains critical to Ukrainian forces fighting to break Russia’s grip on Luhansk in the breakaway Donbas region.

Kharkiv is also just over 50 miles from the Russian city of Belgorod where earlier this week Russian anti-Kremlin militia claimed responsibility for attacking two villages after crossing over the border from Ukraine.

In an online post, groups calling themselves the “Freedom of Russia Legion” and “Russian Volunteer Corps” said they had “liberated” a settlement in the Belgorod region. While Russia insists the militias are a front for the Ukrainian military and the Kremlin sought to downplay the embarrassing security breach, Ukraine says that they are Russian dissidents and was quick to disavow any connection to the Russian fighters. The truth meanwhile probably lies somewhere in between.

Both militias are known to recruit disaffected Russian nationals and also co-ordinate their activities with Ukraine’s military-intelligence agency (HUR) but have no formal connection to the Ukrainian government.

In other words, it allows Kyiv plausible deniability when it comes to any association. But Ukraine needs to be careful here. For while it can ill afford not to embrace every “ally” it can, the Russian Volunteer Corps is known to have far-right leanings and even the remotest association with it only fuels the argument of those who claim that Ukraine “harbours” neo-Nazis and could undermine Kyiv’s assertion that it is fighting Russian fascism.

All this dramatic activity in Belgorod needs to be seen too as part of Ukraine’s strategy of keeping the Russians off balance and laying the groundwork for a coming major offensive.

Everywhere you look right now in this war, Ukraine is striking out, looking for weaknesses and keeping the Russians guessing. But the extent of those Russian weaknesses remains what one commentator recently called the great “known unknown” of this war. That hasn’t stopped Ukraine from probing and testing the Russians at every turn, while amidst all this activity a war of claim and counterclaim runs in tandem.

Yesterday, for example, there were reports that the Russian reconnaissance ship Ivan Khurs was attacked in the early morning by Ukrainian maritime drones in the waters of the Black Sea after passing the Bosphorus Strait.

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There were also reports that the Russian-built Crimean Bridge linking the Crimean peninsula to the Russian region of Krasnodar was reopened yesterday after being closed for several hours for “exercises”, according to an official from Crimea’s Russian-backed administration. It was not clear what was meant by exercises, but earlier eyewitnesses reportedly observed smoke in the area surrounding the bridge.

It’s worth remembering that the 12-mile road and rail bridge was damaged by an explosion last October in an attack that the Kremlin said had been orchestrated by Ukrainian security forces – even though Kyiv did not claim responsibility. This is the way things are here at the moment as Ukraine’s armed forces keep up the pressure at multiple points on the physical battlefield and an intensification of what’s known as psychological operations (psyops) to go with it.

Just these last few days as I journeyed down the east of the country including the frontlines around Donetsk, what I witnessed was a constant flow of men and materiel coming and going in all directions. Even with the best of military intelligence and surveillance technology, it must be a confusing picture for the Russians.

Alongside the guessing game surrounding this week’s raid into Belgorod, questions also still remain as to the military state of play in Bakhmut. While Russian forces would appear to have control of the city, the Ukrainians insist that they have a presence on Bakhmut’s flanks in what some analysts have interpreted as a possible attempt to create a “tactical encirclement” of the Russian troops in the city.

Last Saturday Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Russian Wagner mercenary group while announcing Russia’s “capture” of Bakhmut also once again laid bare the strains of Putin’s war in Ukraine.

It came in the now familiar form of a rant at the failings of the Kremlin’s top brass in particular Putin’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu and chief of the general staff Valery Gerasimov.

Right now, as seen from here in Ukraine, it’s almost impossible to ignore the impression that Kyiv has been doing everything it can to undermine morale and exacerbate divisions among its enemies.

It’s hard also not to notice resultant chinks beginning to appear in Russia’s political and military armour, especially over the past few weeks as the anticipation of a Ukrainian counteroffensive grows.

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From mysterious drone attacks on the Kremlin to explosions at oil storage facilities and train derailments to this week’s raid inside Russia’s borders by ground force militias in Belgorod, the Russians have every reason to be spooked.

All this is beginning to resonate with increasing numbers of prominent Russian political insiders and activists who – albeit tentatively – are starting to raise their heads above the parapet and question the “reasoning” behind Putin’s war. Among the latest of these high-profile figures is Russian senator Lyudmila Narusova, who has close ties to Putin and is also the widow of the Russian president’s one-time political mentor, Anatoly Sobchak.

“Nobody has explained how victory is supposed to look,” Narusova was recently seen saying in a video interview, no doubt summing up the feeling of many in Moscow’s corridors of power. Such criticism is notable given her close connection to Putin and the fact she’s increasingly not a lone voice.

The bottom line is that with every day that passes it becomes ever more evident that the Russian president has no Plan B. All Putin can hope for now is a continuation of what has come before, a grinding war of attrition and the hope that Ukraine’s Western allies will run out of steam in their support.

Ukraine meanwhile is determined to ensure this does not happen.

Kyiv’s latest upping of the ante before a major counteroffensive has not only knocked the Kremlin off keel but has Russia seriously rattled – and it’s beginning to show.