The last two days have seen growing signs Ukraine is redoubling its efforts to drive out Vladimir Putin’s forces.
Russia’s defense ministry said it repelled a major assault in the Donetsk region, claiming in the process to having killed hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers, destroyed 28 tanks and more than a hundred armored vehicles.
“Having suffered heavy losses the day before, the Kyiv regime reorganised the remnants of the 23rd and 31st mechanised brigades into separate consolidated units, which continued offensive operations,” it said on its Telegram channel.
Ukraine dismissed Russia’s claims. But hours after his officials said some offensive operations were being mounted, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in his nightly television address on Monday welcomed advances he says Ukrainian troops have been making, including around the Eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, where fighting has been intense for months. “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,” Zelenksyy said.
But the Ukrainian leader stopped short of announcing that the long-awaited counteroffensive — originally expected in the spring — had been launched. Instead, government officials in Kyiv have been careful to describe the multiple attacks reported along the frontline as “local actions.”
“We are continuing the defence that began on 24 February 2022. The defensive operation includes everything, including counteroffensive actions. Therefore, in some areas we are moving to offensive actions,” Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, said in a Telegram post. “Fighting of local importance continues,” she added.
Clearly there has been a significant uptick in operations by the Ukrainians in the past 48 hours. Few military observers dispute that the war is now entering a new phase. So, has the much-anticipated campaign finally started?
The answer appears to be both yes and no.
The recent attacks so far appear to represent the prelude to a full-scale action that is yet to begin. There has been no convincing evidence offered so far to suggest that the dozen brigades trained and kitted out by NATO for the counteroffensive have been used in these recent assaults or deployed in force on the battlefield. The 23rd and 31st mechanised brigades the Russian defense ministry mentioned are not part of the new army that’s been training for a full-scale offensive.
Some of the attacks along five separate lines in south-eastern Donetsk appear to have been exploratory forays, testing Russian reactions and capabilities and looking for gaps. Nonetheless, the Ukrainians claim already to have had some success.
The Commander of Ukraine’s Ground Forces, Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi said Tuesday that Russian forces around Bakhmut could not withstand the onslaught of the Ukrainian military and retreated up to 2 kilometers.
Serhii Cherevatyi, spokesman for the Eastern Command of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, said on Ukrainian television “despite the enemy’s fierce resistance, our airborne assault and mechanised units managed to advance” between 300 meters and 1 kilometer, “in various parts of the front line.”
And it isn’t just the Ukrainians saying there have been a series of breaches in Russian defenses. Several ultranationalist Russian military bloggers have been bewailing on social media the advances Ukrainian forces have made around Bakhmut, in northern Donetsk and in the village of Novodonetske.
They include Igor Girkin, a former Russian intelligence officer and paramilitary commander who played a key role in Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas. He said in a social media post that “the enemy managed to cut into our position.” According to Girkin, there’s no doubt that the counteroffensive has finally begun.