Just over a month into its counteroffensive, Ukraine continues to make incremental advances and claims to be eroding the ability of invading Russian forces to fight back.
Ukrainian forces recaptured 28.4 square kilometres (11 square miles) of territory in the previous week, bringing the counteroffensive’s total gains to 158sq km (61sq miles), said Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar.
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The Ukrainian army was “advancing steadily, deliberately working its way through very difficult minefields … 500 metres a day, 1,000 metres a day, 2,000 metres a day, that kind of thing,” Chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley told the National Press Club in Washington on June 30. He estimated the counteroffensive could take as many as 10 weeks.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said his forces destroyed 2,500 pieces of Ukrainian equipment since the counteroffensive began on June 4.
“Overall, neither of the enemy’s goals in either direction has been met,” said Shoigu during a speech at the defence ministry. “This confirms the prowess of Russian warriors and the obviously inflated hopes for the acclaimed Western armaments.”
Al Jazeera could not verify either Russian or Ukrainian figures, but Ukrainian officials insisted that territorial gains were not the priority at this stage.
Ukraine’s Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council Oleksiy Danilov described “the number one task” of the armed forces as “the maximum destruction of manpower, equipment, fuel depots, armoured vehicles, command posts, artillery, and air defence forces of the Russian army”.
These are softening operations in advance of a major attack, say military experts, and they reflect the tactics Ukraine employed ahead of major advances in September last year.
‘Every metre given by blood’
Ukrainian commander of the armed forces Valery Zaluzhny told the Washington Post he was “pissed off” by those who complained about the slow pace of the counteroffensive.
“This is not a show,” Zaluzhny said. “It’s not a show the whole world is watching and betting on or anything. Every day, every metre is given by blood.”
The counteroffensive would be both faster and more effective if it had been accompanied by mastery of the air, he said, referring to Western allies’ reluctance to provide F-16 planes in a timely manner.
He also said his forces were outgunned – sometimes 10 to 1 – because of ammunition shortages.
Throughout the 71st week of the war, the main action was concentrated in specific battles. On the eastern front, Russia and Ukraine fought in the areas of Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiivka and Marinka, all in the Donetsk region.
On the southern front, Ukraine claimed to be making progress in at least two areas – south of Orikhiv, in western Zaporizhzhia and on the Zaporizhzhia-Donetsk administrative border.
Bakhmut remained of special importance to both sides. Russia occupied most of the town in early June after fighting for it for a year. Ukraine has since been engaged in an attempt to retake the city by flanking it to the north and south.
On June 28, Ukraine’s general staff said its forces seized “a strategic initiative and are leading a broad offensive action” forcing Russians out of captured positions.
Maliar reported advances of 1,200 metres towards Klishchiivka and 1,500 metres towards Kurdyumivka, both south of Bakhmut.
She said Ukrainian troops still controlled the southwestern outskirts of Bakhmut, but the heaviest fighting was now around the city. “The offensive is proceeding in several directions and our troops are advancing everywhere,” she said during a telethon.
Russia responded by moving elite troops to Bakhmut. Ukraine’s eastern forces spokesman Colonel Serhiy Cherevatyi said a Russian airborne forces regiment had been transferred to Bakhmut from Lyman.
Ukraine’s general staff said it was still “kicking out” Russian forces from their positions around Bakhmut on July 3. “The opponent is doing crazy resistance and suffers huge losses. Some tough fighting going on here,” it said.
Cherevatyi said of the 180,000 Russian troops on the eastern front, the best 50,000 were defending Bakhmut armed with more than 300 tanks, 330 artillery pieces, and 140 multiple-launch rocket systems.
“For them, the city is not only of military importance, but also of information and propaganda,” he said.
Russia’s defence ministry said it repelled all Ukrainian attacks on the eastern front near Bakhmut and Lyman.
“Russian sources are increasingly claiming that Ukrainian forces are currently conducting assaults in southern Ukraine with smaller infantry groups and fewer armoured vehicles than during earlier counteroffensive operations,” wrote the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a think-tank.
One source cited described Ukrainian tactics: “Now the enemy is acting in relays, using small assault groups in waves. As soon as one unit runs out of steam, a new unit takes its place.”
ISW said the reporting suggests Ukrainian forces are not currently attempting large-scale operations that would result in rapid territorial advances.
“Ukrainian officials have routinely indicated that Ukrainian forces have yet to commit a substantial portion of their forces to counteroffensive operations, and have yet to launch the main phase of the counteroffensive,” it said.
Ukraine started its counteroffensive with mechanised units, but appeared to have returned to guerrilla tactics it employed early in the war after sustaining highly publicised losses of tanks and armoured fighting vehicles in June.
Russian drones were able to ferret out armoured columns and guide artillery strikes against them.
However, those guerrilla tactics were not always successful. Russian occupation governor of Kherson Vladimir Saldo said a few dozen Ukrainian troops had been cleared from the eastern side of the Antonivsky Bridge in a special forces operation.
He said there were no further Ukraine troops the left bank of the Dnipro river. “The destruction of the [Ukrainian] units that landed … in the Antonovsky bridge area has been completed,” said the Russian defence ministry on July 3.
Ukraine indirectly confirmed increased Russian activity on the Dnipro.
Russian forces were stepping up artillery attacks and air strikes against the right bank of the Dnipro from the Kinburn Spit, said Natalia Humeniuk, spokesperson for Ukraine’s southern forces. The aim was to distract Ukraine’s forces from efforts to cross the river to the left bank.
Humeniuk said Russian forces returned to positions they retreated from after the Nova Kakhovka Dam breach flooded them, and were launching reconnaissance patrols across the river to spy on Ukrainian activities. In just one day, she said, Ukrainian forces had sunk two boats with 66 Russian troops in the Mykolaiv area.
Ukraine has warned for weeks that Russia is preparing to create a nuclear contamination incident at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, where it maintains about 5,000 troops.
“According to operational information, outside objects resembling explosive devices were placed on the outer roofs of the third and fourth power units of the [power plant],” the general staff said.
The goal of this sabotage was not necessarily to damage the reactors, but to make it look as if Ukraine had shelled the plant, it said.
“It is important that all Ukrainians are morally prepared for the detonation of the [facility], as well as trained in how to act in any situation. We simply have no other way out,” said Maliar.
Russia, meanwhile, accused Ukraine of planning to attack the nuclear plant.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov raised the specter of a potentially “catastrophic” provocation by the Ukrainian army at the facility, which is Europe’s largest.
“The situation is quite tense. There is a great threat of sabotage by the Kyiv regime, which can be catastrophic in its consequences,” Peskov said.