Ukrainian troops, who have been on the defensive for four months, will launch their expected counter-offensive “very soon” now that Russia’s extended winter offensive is draining its momentum without understanding Bahamut, the Supreme Commander of the Ground Forces of Ukraine announced on Thursday. General Oleksandr Sirsky’s remarks were the strongest indication yet from Kiev that it is close to a change in tactics, having absorbed Russia’s onslaught in a brutal winter. Wagner’s Russian mercenaries, trying to capture Bahamut, in the longest and bloodiest battle of the war, “they lose significant strength and become exhausted”Sirsky said on the social networking site Telegram.

“Very soon, we will take advantage of this opportunity, as we have done in the past near Kiev, Kharkiv, Balaklia and Kupyansk,” he said, referring to Ukrainian counter-offensives last year that proved to be turning points in the war, with Kiev recapturing territory. Sirsky was one of the key figures behind Ukraine’s strategy last year to stave off Russia’s offensive in Kiev and push back Moscow’s forces until the second half of 2022. But the front lines in Ukraine have “frozen”. largely since Ukraine’s last major attack in November. Since then, Moscow has sent hundreds of thousands of conscripted reservists and convicts recruited from prisons into fighting that both sides describe as “cannon fodder”.

The Russian campaign has yielded few territorial gains, and Ukraine, which had looked likely to withdraw from the small, devastated town of Bakhmut, decided this month to keep its forces there, denying Moscow its first victory since last August. Kiev has long said it plans a major counteroffensive sometime this year, using newly acquired Western weapons. Several of its most successful attacks last year occurred after Russia had exhausted her forces in extensive conflicts in the east.

There was no immediate response from Moscow to Kiev’s latest reports that its forces in Bakhmut had lost momentum, but Yevgeny Prigozhin, the “boss” of Wagner’s mercenaries, has made pessimistic statements in recent days, warning of a Ukrainian counterattack. On Monday Prigozhin released a letter to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, saying Ukraine aimed to cut off Wagner’s forces from Russia’s regular troops, demanding that Shoigu act to prevent such an eventuality, warning ca “negative consequences” if it fails.

On Wednesday, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said Ukraine had launched a local counter-offensive west of Bakhmut that is likely to relieve pressure on the main road used to supply Kiev’s forces inside the city. There is still a risk that Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut will be surrounded, London said, but there is also “a realistic possibility that the Russian offensive on the city will lose the limited momentum it has gained”.