Quentin Sommerville: Is this Ukraine’s breakthrough moment?

Government forces in Ukraine are trying to seize the initiative from Russian troops before the arrival of winter. A counter-offensive is already under way in the south and the Ukrainians are now preparing to expand that in the east to take back land lost in Donbas and around Kharkiv in the north. Quentin Sommerville and camera-journalist Darren Conway have been given exclusive access to a unit of Ukrainian troops.

The air is thick with the smell of burning sunflowers, and the pat-pat-pat of Russian cluster bombs can be heard landing across the fields, setting fire to a crop which stands, heads bowed, awaiting a harvest that’s unlikely to come.

A self-propelled gun roars through the field, its caterpillar tracks tearing up the rich Donbas earth. The National Guard hold this ground in Ukraine’s east – territory that Vladimir Putin has claimed as central to his war aims. It will be taken “step-by-step”, he said. But for now, Russian progress has been reduced to a crawl.

And hanging heavy in the air, among the smoke and dust, is something else – expectation. Here in Donbas, and further north on the outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, the country’s forces are braced for a counter-offensive.

I recently left army positions in the south, around Kherson. It is the only city that Russian forces have captured west of the strategically important Dnieper River. Those same troops are now engaged in battle, supporting forces who have broken through Russian lines in at least three places, as part of a long-planned counter-offensive in the south. Strict Ukrainian reporting restrictions are in place as the operation is under way.

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