Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has praised his troops after Ukrainian forces pressed forward in several sections of the front line with Russia amid speculation the increased combat activities may signal that Kyiv’s long-expected counteroffensive is getting under way.
In his nightly video address on Monday, Zelenskyy mocked what he described as Russia’s hysterical reaction to every operation undertaken by Ukrainian forces and singled out two Ukrainian units who “skilfully, decisively and effectively defend our positions, destroy the occupiers and, most importantly, move forward”.
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“I am grateful to each of our warriors, to all our defenders who gave us the news we expect. Bakhmut direction – well done, warriors!” Zelenskyy said in his address, which did not directly address whether the long-awaited counteroffensive had started.
“We see how hysterically Russia perceives every step we take there, every position we take,” he said.
“The enemy knows that Ukraine will win. They see it. They feel it thanks to your strikes, soldiers and in particular in Donetsk region. Thank you for that.”
Although the global trend is clear – Russia will lose this war, Russia's rulers continue to deny reality. They continue to try to deceive the world, to circumvent sanctions, to produce more weapons, to ensure more resources and people are spent on this aggression… We are… pic.twitter.com/ymcYWrlo2F
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) June 5, 2023
The commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Oleksandr Syrskyi, said earlier on Monday that his troops continued “moving forward” near Bakhmut. Russian fighters and officials said the situation there was “very difficult”, despite Moscow claiming to have captured the city late last month following what had become the war’s longest and bloodiest battle. Ukraine had insisted its forces retained a small foothold in the eastern city.
Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar also said Ukraine was “shifting to offensive actions” along parts of the front but dismissed suggestions this was part of a major operation.
Countering those claims, Russia’s military said it thwarted two large-scale Ukrainian offensives against its forces in eastern Ukraine since Sunday and had inflicted major losses on Ukrainian forces in what appeared to be Moscow’s attempt to portray the military activity as the start of Ukraine’s counteroffensive that was failing early.
“The enemy launched a large-scale offensive in five sectors of the front in the South Donetsk direction,” the Russian defence ministry said in a statement.
“The enemy did not achieve its tasks, it had no success,” it said.
Russia’s defence ministry claimed early on Tuesday that eight of Ukraine’s Germany-made Leopard battle tanks were among 28 tanks destroyed in the fighting along with 109 armoured vehicles and hundreds of Ukrainian troops killed.
But some pro-Kremlin military bloggers painted a different picture of the fighting, acknowledging that Kyiv’s troops had made some quick gains. The boss of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, also said on Monday that Ukraine’s troops had made gains near Bakhmut.
Russian troops, he said, were “slowly” leaving the village of Berkhivka near Bakhmut, which he said was a “disgrace”.
The Wagner boss again challenged Valery Gerasimov, chief of Russia’s General Staff, and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu to come to the front line and force Russian troops to stand and fight.
Kyiv is officially keeping silent regarding the start of any counteroffensive despite speculation by analysts that an offensive campaign against Russian forces has started.
A video Ukraine released over the weekend shows several of its soldiers in full combat gear raising a finger to their lips.
“Plans love silence. There will be no start announcement,” say the words flashing on the screen afterwards, followed by warplanes in flight.
‘Kyiv is looking for Russia’s weak spots’
Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Kyiv, said there was “increasing evidence of an intensification of fighting at various locations along the front line”.
“Whether this represents the beginning of the long-awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive and efforts by Ukrainian forces to find weak spots in Russian defence or, indeed, these are small probing attacks ahead of a larger full-scale operation, well that will become clear in the coming days,” he said.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington, DC-based think tank, said on Tuesday that it too had observed increased fighting in different sectors of the front line amid signals from Russian and Ukrainian officials that the counteroffensive has started.
“Ukrainian forces are making territorial gains despite Russian claims to the contrary”, the ISW said, noting that Moscow had a history of claiming Ukrainian battlefield defeats which later turned out to be successes for Kyiv.
Russian and Ukrainian officials are signaling the start of the Ukrainian #counteroffensive. ISW has observed increased combat activity in different sectors of the frontline and assesses that Ukrainian forces are making territorial gains despite Russian claims to the contrary.🧵⬇️
— ISW (@TheStudyofWar) June 5, 2023
“Russian officials have historically immediately claimed that Ukrainian counter-offensives failed even when the counter-offensives ultimately succeed,” the ISW said.
“A successful counteroffensive operation may take days, weeks, or even months before its outcome becomes fully clear, during which time Russian sources may falsely claim to have defeated it,” the institute said.
Military analysts say Ukraine has tried to hide its strategic intentions by launching multiple attacks on several sectors of the front line over recent weeks to force Russia to scatter its resources and distract them from where the main strike would be launched.
“Kyiv is looking for Russia’s weak spots and trying to spread the front” as wide “as possible”, Ukrainian military analyst Roman Svitan said.
For months, tens of thousands of Russian troops have been digging in along a front line that stretches for approximately 1,000km (600 miles), bracing for a Ukrainian attack expected to try to cut Russia’s so-called land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula. Many military experts expect Ukraine to try to ram through Russian defences towards the Sea of Azov coast to break the land corridor to Russian-held Crimea.
The Washington Post reported that some officials in Washington thought the counteroffensive was under way but the US White House’s national security spokesperson, John Kirby, declined to say whether he thought this was the case.
“I’m not going to be talking for the Ukrainian military. That’s for them to speak to,” he told a regular briefing, although he stressed the work the United States had done to ensure the Ukrainians were ready.
“So whether it’s starting now, or starting soon, or whenever they decide to step up and whatever they decide to do, the president is confident that we did everything we could over the last six, eight months or more to make sure that they had all the equipment, the training, the capabilities to be successful.”
Sir Richard Barrons, former Commander of the UK Joint Forces Command, said a counteroffensive would not unfold on a set time scale.
“We need to understand that what we’re calling the Ukraine counteroffensive is not like a football match,” he said
“It’s not going to be done and dusted in 90 minutes with a halftime on an appointed day. It’s been nine months at least in the preparation in the sense that they’ve had to gather weapons and ammunition from NATO. Not enough, I think, so far,” he said.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told Reuters on Monday that Ukraine now had enough weapons for a counteroffensive but declined to comment when asked whether it had begun.