Ukrainian troops went on the attack at multiple points along the frontline in the Donetsk region on Monday, driving back Russian forces in at least two areas in what appeared to be the preliminary stages of Ukraine’s long-anticipated counteroffensive.
Russia said on Tuesday it had thwarted another major Ukrainian offensive in Donetsk, inflicting heavy losses.
In his nightly address, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy hailed the advances made by Ukraine’s “warriors” after his government declared it had shifted to offensive operations in some sectors, with reports of intense close-quarter fighting in several locations. He also welcomed what he called “the news we have been waiting for” from Bakhmut, without giving further details.
“I am grateful to each soldier, to all our defenders, men and women, who have given us today the news we have been waiting for. Fine job, soldiers in the Bakhmut sector!” Zelenskiy said.
Foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba told Reuters on Monday that Ukraine has enough weapons to begin the counteroffensive operation.
Ukrainian officials described Monday’s attacks as “local” actions, and rejected the Russian defence ministry’s claims early on Monday that the major counteroffensive had begun and had already been thwarted at high cost to the attackers.
On Tuesday, the Russian defence ministry claimed on Telegram that, “Having suffered heavy losses the day before, the Kiev regime reorganised the remnants of the 23rd and 31st mechanised brigades into separate consolidated units, which continued offensive operations.”
The statement said Russian forces had inflicted huge personnel losses on attacking Ukrainian forces and destroyed 28 tanks, including eight Leopard main battle tanks and 109 armoured vehicles. It said total Ukrainian losses amounted to 1,500 troops.
But Moscow’s earlier boasts of having repelled all the attacks were undermined by Russian militia leaders and military bloggers, who said Ukrainian forces had advanced around the city of Bakhmut in northern Donetsk and the village of Novodonetske in the west of the region.
“Well done, warriors! We see how hysterically Russia reacts to any step we take there, all positions we take. The enemy knows that Ukraine will win,” Zelenskiy said in his Monday night video address.
The Ukraine offensive operations did not appear to use much if any of the 12-brigade assault force that Ukraine has built up in recent months with the help of western training and equipment, suggesting they could be preliminary attacks aimed at probing and stretching Russian defences, in advance of a much bigger push to come.
The attacks signal the approach of a pivotal point in the war. If the Ukrainian counteroffensive liberates a significant swath of territory and sets Russian forces back on their heels, it would offer hope of an early end to the conflict. Failure could doom Ukraine to a protracted gruelling struggle with no end in sight, and international pressure to cede territory.
Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, Hanna Maliar, said the country’s defence against Russia’s all-out invasion, which began in February last year, included “counteroffensive actions”.
“Therefore, in some areas we are moving to offensive actions,” Maliar said on the Telegram messaging app. She added that the Bakhmut front was the “epicentre of hostilities”.
“There we are moving along a fairly wide front. We are successful. We occupy the dominant heights. The enemy is on the defensive and wants to hold his position,” she said. “In the south, the enemy is on the defensive. Fighting of local importance continues.”
The first sign of a new phase in the war came in the early hours of Monday morning with a Russian defence ministry statement saying Ukraine had attacked with six mechanised and two tank battalions from two brigades in five places along the Donetsk front.
“The enemy’s goal was to break through our defences in the most vulnerable, in its opinion, sector of the front,” it said. “The enemy did not achieve its tasks, it had no success.”https://interactive.guim.co.uk/uploader/embed/2023/06/ukraine_donetsk_overview-zip/giv-13425dF5s92BK903U/
The official claim that the Ukrainian attacks had been repelled was called into question by contrary accounts from other Russian sources.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner group of mercenaries who completed the capture of Bakhmut city last month, said on Monday that the Russian regular troops who had taken over Wagner positions had already lost Berkhivka, a settlement north of Bakhmut city.
“Now part of the settlement of Berkhivka has already been lost, the troops are quietly running away. Disgrace,” Prigozhin said in an audio message published by his own press outlet. He challenged Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s overall commander for the war in Ukraine; and Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, to come to the frontlines themselves.
“Come on, you can do it,” Prigozhin taunted. “And if you can’t, you’ll die as heroes.”
Alexander Khodakovsky, the head of the pro-Moscow Vostok Battalion in the Donbas, said Ukrainian forces had also made gains south in western Donetsk region, south of the town of Velyka Novosilka. He described how a Ukrainian column with 30 armoured vehicles had been spotted in the area, but due to the “limited capacities” of Russian aerial reconnaissance, had been able to move and attack at another point, near the village of Novodonetske.
“The strike group … reached the line of attack almost unnoticed,” Khodakovsky said, adding that the Russian defenders there were in a “difficult position”.
Later on Monday, Khodakovsky reported that German-made Leopard tanks had been spotted among the attacking forces, as Ukraine’s army pressed its advantagehttps://interactive.guim.co.uk/uploader/embed/2023/06/donetsk_zoom-zip/giv-13425pDz1DE58WML5/
“The enemy, having felt our weak points, is stepping up his efforts. For the first time we saw Leopards in our tactical area,” he said, adding: “Smelling the scent of success, the enemy will throw additional forces into the battle.”
Meanwhile, Ukraine-backed Russian rebels kept up their offensive inside the Russian region of Belgorod. The incursion launched on Thursday by the Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps was aimed at the town of Shebekino, and on Monday the rebels claimed to have destroyed Russian armoured vehicles on the outskirts of town.
Igor Girkin, a Russian nationalist critic of the Kremlin and former “defence minister” in the Russian-installed authority in Donetsk, said it was clear Ukraine “has not yet made full use of his main forces”.
He added: “If the enemy’s offensive has really begun, and is not a ‘test of strength’, the intensity of the battles will only increase in the coming days. The outcome of the battle is not yet completely predetermined – it is just beginning.”
The US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, predicted the Ukrainian counteroffensive would recapture “strategically significant territory”.
“Exactly how much, in what places, that will be up to developments on the ground as the Ukrainians get this counteroffensive under way,” Sullivan told CNN. “But we believe that the Ukrainians will meet with success in this counteroffensive.”
The Ukrainian operations came on the eve of the 79th anniversary of the D-day landings, and the leadership in Kyiv argued that the battle for Ukraine has similarly high stakes for the future of European democracy.
Zelenskiy looked relaxed as he hosted the British foreign secretary, James Cleverly, in Kyiv on Monday. He thanked the UK for “big support” in helping his country, by offering to train fighter pilots, and he asked for further help in “closing the sky” to make it safe from Russian missile and drone attacks.
The Ukrainian president did not mention the counteroffensive or the battlefield situation directly after the meeting, but his chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, tweeted a cryptic comment, saying: “True wisdom is to be able to convince the enemies they have already lost.”
“Victory or defeat, it is born in heads first,” he added, suggesting that winning or losing started as a state of mind.