Ukraine says it is continuing to make advances against Russian troops occupying its south and east as the early stages of its much-hyped counteroffensive take shape.
Kyiv said on Monday it wrested away seven villages since the weekend and made small gains near the eastern city of Bakhmut.
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“Seven settlements were liberated,” Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said on Telegram, naming the villages as Lobkovo, Levadne, and Novodarivka in the southern Zaporizhia region.
Storozheve village in the eastern Donetsk region – near three others recaptured on Sunday – was also reportedly taken on Monday. Soldiers were seen in a verified video holding the Ukrainian flag in Storozheve along the Mokri Yaly River.
“At first the enemy resisted, trying to repel our attack with artillery. We managed to regain the initiative and slowly – house by house – began to recapture the village,” said one unidentified Ukraine fighter in the video.
Maliar said in total an area spanning 90 square kilometres (35 sq miles) along the front line had been retaken by Ukraine forces in recent days.
But the gains amounted to only small bits of territory and underscored the difficulty of the battle ahead for Ukrainian units, which will have to fight metre by metre to regain the roughly one-fifth of their country under Russian occupation.
‘The battles are tough’
Russia, meanwhile, said on Monday that it repelled Ukrainian attacks in various areas.
Vladimir Rogov, an official with the Moscow-installed administration of the Zaporizhia region at the western end of the front line, said “heavy battles” raged in the area, involving Russian artillery, mortars and air power.
Alexander Kots, a military correspondent for Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, said Ukrainian forces were attempting to advance – despite heavy losses – towards the town of Staromlinovka, which sits on a strategic highway leading to the port city of Mariupol.
Russian forces captured the city a year ago after Ukrainian forces held out for several months in a gruelling and desperate defence.
The various claims of territorial gains could not be independently verified and could be reversed in the to-and-fro of ground warfare.
The military push is already Ukraine’s most rapid advance for seven months, though still far short of a major breakthrough.
The task of ending Moscow’s occupation of southern and eastern Ukraine is daunting, given Russia’s numerical superiority in men, ammunition and air power as well as the many months it has had to build deep defensive fortifications.
“The battles are tough but our movement is there – and that is very important,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address. “The enemy’s losses are exactly what we need.”
He added that rainy weather is challenging his troops and that he has discussed with his military commanders, “which points of the front we need to strengthen and what actions we can take to break more Russian positions”.
‘Difficult time for Russia’
Some Western military analysts said it was too early to draw conclusions about the counteroffensive and the skirmishes so far may show that Ukraine is still just testing Russian defences.
The United States-based Institute for the Study of War said Ukraine was attempting “an extraordinarily difficult tactical operation – a frontal assault against prepared defensive positions, further complicated by a lack of air superiority”. Initial assault results should not be over-interpreted, it added.
Ben Hodges, a former commander of US forces in Europe, said the main strike – when it comes – would feature several hundred tanks and infantry fighting vehicles.
“The offensive has clearly started, but not I think the main attack,” he wrote in an article for the Washington, DC-based Center for European Policy Analysis.
Russia has yet to face this kind of onslaught but its unconvincing battlefield performance in the 15 months since its full-scale invasion has led to frequent changes of command and public arguments with private militias summoned to fight alongside the army.
President Vladimir Putin marked Russia’s national day on Monday with an award ceremony in the Kremlin but made only a glancing mention in his speech of the war he unleashed in February 2022.
“Today, at a difficult time for Russia, [feelings of patriotism and pride] unite our society even more strongly … and serve as a reliable support for our heroes taking part in the special military operation,” said Putin.