The price of liberation is high. In the village of Posad-Pokrovske in southern Ukraine, a place once on the very frontline of the war, almost every house is damaged by shell fire.
Outside a blue-painted church, Father Viktor Kravchuk, 61, has laid out the sheets, quilts and clothes he has rescued from his ruined house to air in front a little cemetery that is a tangle of blossoming lilac.
Mykola Barkov, a volunteer, helps Kravchuk clear out a ruined room with a sagging, broken ceiling where, before the war, the priest hosted his church group meetings.
Kravchuk tells the story of the village, describing the brief Russian occupation there at the beginning of the war – how after the Russians were pushed out, the village became a frontline position for Ukraine’s soldiers, who were hit by Russian shells for months.
It was only last November, the priest says, when the Ukrainian army swept through the province and into nearby Kherson city, that the daily threat to the village was removed.
“When the Russians came, at first they asked us why we didn’t greet them with bread and salt,” he adds. “They didn’t understand how we saw them as occupiers. But of course it was worth it.”
The sweeping Ukrainian advances of last autumn, which saw Kyiv retake Kharkiv province and large parts of Kherson province down to the dividing Dnipro river, were achieved with limited resources.
Then, Ukraine’s nimble assault brigades moved in convoys of private cars to reach the locations where they would muster. Short on armour, artillery and ammunition compared with Moscow’s lumbering forces, they turned disadvantage to their favour.
With Ukraine on the brink of launching a spring counteroffensive, the scars of last autumn’s push are a reminder of what is at stake.
While the trenches occupied by the Russian forces, before they fled east across the river from Kherson, are collapsing slowly in upon themselves, there are new excavations now, busy with Ukrainian soldiers.
Minefield warning signs dot the countryside, while in graveyards across the region families visit those killed in the fighting. In a field not far from Kherson’s eastern outskirts the remains of a downed fighter jet, its sleek geometry buckled, has foundered in the long grass.
The evidence that more war is coming to Ukraine – and soon – is supplied by the roads, full of military traffic. Troop transports and newly supplied vehicles from western allies are moving, apparently confirming the statements of senior officials that the counteroffensive will come imminently and that they are “almost ready”.
Underlining that claim, a series of Ukrainian drone attacks in the past week have struck fuel and logistics depots in the Russian-occupied areas.
Along the southern Dnipro river around Kherson, Ukrainian artillery batteries have stepped up targeting of Russian positions on the far side of the river, while in a number of locations Russian military correspondents and bloggers say they have seen reconnaissance-in-force assaults designed to probe for weak spots.
What is also clear is that this will be a different kind of offensive, the light brigades of last year superseded by bigger and more heavily armed formations which will pose new organisational challenges to fight.
Former Australian general and military analyst Mick Ryan recently outlined how he thought the counteroffensive would unfold. “I would emphasise there will not just be one big push, but probably several different offensives,” wrote Ryan. “This is because both the south and the east present opportunities for offensive action. But it is also because the Ukrainians will want to deceive Russia about their main effort.
“But this [offensive] will be different from those that have preceded it. This time, the Ukrainians will have to fight through more dense obstacle belts established by the Russians in the east and south.”
It has not only been on the Ukrainian side that preparations for the impending fight have been in evidence. On Friday, Russia announced the evacuation of 70,000 people from areas near the frontline in southern Ukraine, blaming a recent intensification of Ukrainian shelling.
Western and Ukrainian observers also say they have detected a change in the Russian posture, shifting from Moscow’s struggling efforts to push forward with its offensive in the east to a more obviously defensive attitude, not least amid reports that Russian forces have begun stockpiling artillery rounds.
That in turn has prompted a striking outbreak of pre-emptive blame sharing ahead of the Ukrainian offensive, not least from the head of the Wagner mercenary group, whose troops have been at the forefront of fighting around the key eastern city of Bakhmut.
Blaming a shortage of ammunition for his forces, Prigozhin threatened to pull his forces from the city in a bizarre and expletive-laden video filmed at night in front of the bloodied bodies of his troops.
“These are someone’s fathers and someone’s sons,” he said, effectively accusing the Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, and the chief of general staff, Valery Gerasimov, of undermining his efforts.
“The scum that doesn’t give us ammunition will eat their guts in hell,” Prigozhin said. “For the tens of thousands killed and wounded, they will bear responsibility in front of their mothers and children, I will achieve that. Their unprofessionalism is destroying tens of thousands of Russian guys and that is unforgivable.”
And while it remains an open question whether Prigozhin will actually withdraw his troops or not, the purpose of his latest video seems clear: to distance himself from the escalating failures of a Russian military leadership which, despite huge losses this winter, has achieved almost nothing.
For Ukrainians closest to the frontlines, the growing anticipation has produced an oddly dissonant mood, where excitement and anxiety coexist.
In Kherson – where 23 people in the city and surrounding villages were killed in Russian strikes on Wednesday, including an attack on a supermarket – residents stocked up on groceries, or quit the city by car or on the daily evacuation train.
Senol Gezer, a 56-year-old man originally from Turkey, said he and his wife were going to a hotel in nearby Odesa.
“We are not afraid. We do not want to sit at home. We have time to leave,” he said, filling his car with petrol. “The authorities say they will clean up the collaborators [accused of cooperating with the Russians]. But that is what the authorities are saying. I think something big is about to start soon. These are preparations for that, most likely.”
Like Father Kravchuk, Oleksandra Viernenko, aged 76, is aware of what any counteroffensive is likely to involve for many Ukrainians still under occupation.
Examining her ruined flat in a village near the town of Snihurivka, abandoned by Russian forces in the last offensive, Oleksandra is moved to tears. “At my age this is a hard thing. I still don’t know how I am going to live, but every day I pray to God, and I pray for liberation.”