The past two days have seen growing signs that Ukraine is redoubling its efforts to oust Vladimir Putin’s forces.
Russia’s defense ministry said it had repulsed a major assault in the Donetsk region, saying it killed hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers, destroyed 28 tanks and more than 100 armored vehicles.
“After suffering heavy losses the day before, the Kiev regime reorganized the remnants of the 23rd and 31st Mechanized Brigades into separate consolidated units, which continued offensive operations,” he said on his Telegram channel.
Ukraine has rejected Russia’s claims. But hours after his officials said some offensive operations had been staged, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in his Monday night televised speech welcomed advances he says Ukrainian troops are making, including around the city of Ukraine east of Bakhmut, where fighting has been intense for months. “I am grateful to every soldier, to all our defenders, men and women, who gave us today the news we have been waiting for,” Zelenksyy said.
But the Ukrainian leader stopped short of announcing that the long-awaited counter-offensive, originally scheduled for spring, had been launched. Instead, government officials in Kiev have been careful to describe the multiple attacks reported along the front line as « local actions ».
“We are continuing the defense that began on February 24, 2022. The defensive operation includes everything, including counter-offensives. Therefore, in some areas we are moving towards offensive actions,” Deputy Defense Minister of Ukraine Hanna Maliar said in a Telegram post. “Fightings of local importance continue,” she added.
Clearly there has been a significant increase in operations by the Ukrainians in the last 48 hours. Few military observers dispute that the war is now entering a new phase. So, has the long-awaited campaign finally begun?
The answer seems to be both yes and no.
The recent attacks so far appear to be the prelude to a large-scale action that has yet to begin. So far, no convincing evidence has been provided to suggest that the dozens of NATO-trained and equipped counteroffensive brigades were used in these recent assaults or deployed in battlefield forces. The 23rd and 31st Mechanized Brigades cited by the Russian Defense Ministry are not part of the new army that is training for a full-scale offensive.
Some of the attacks along five separate lines in southeast Donetsk appear to have been scouting raids, testing Russian reactions and capabilities, and looking for gaps. However, the Ukrainians say they have already had some success.
The commander of the Ukrainian Ground Forces, General Oleksandr Syrskyi, said on Tuesday that the Russian forces around Bakhmut could not resist the onslaught of the Ukrainian army and had retreated up to 2 kilometers.
Serhii Cherevatyi, spokesman for the Eastern Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, told Ukrainian television « despite the fierce resistance of the enemy, our airborne and mechanized assault units managed to advance » between 300 meters and 1 kilometer, « in various parts of the front line. »
And it’s not just Ukrainians who say there have been a series of breaches in Russia’s defences. Several ultranationalist Russian military bloggers have complained on social media about the progress made by Ukrainian forces around Bakhmut, northern Donetsk and the village of Novodonetske.
They include Igor Girkin, a former Russian intelligence officer and paramilitary commander who played a key role in the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass. He said in a social media post that « the enemy managed to enter our position ». According to Girkin, there is no doubt that the counteroffensive has finally begun.