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Ukrainian mechanized brigades are redoubling their assaults around Bakhmut in the Donetsk region and nearby Zaporizhzhia but appear to be facing stiff Russian resistance with both sides saying they have inflicted heavy casualties over the past five days.
As their counteroffensive ramps up, the Ukrainians say they have made advances of up to 1,600 meters around Bakhmut, the salt-mining town that Russian forces only recently overran after months of fierce close-quarters fighting.
And Russian military bloggers with close ties to the country’s defense ministry have acknowledged that the Ukrainians have had some success there. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner paramilitary group, earlier this week complained about a withdrawal of Russian troops in Bakhmut, calling it a « disgrace ».
But in Zaporizhzhia the picture looks much more confused. “Ukrainian forces conducted a limited but still significant attack on the western Zaporizhzhia region during the night of June 7-8,” the Institute for the Study of War reported in its daily campaign update. « The Russian forces apparently defended themselves against this attack in a doctrinally sound manner and had reportedly regained their initial positions as of 8 June. »
The Washington-based think tank said geolocated footage suggests Ukrainian forces likely broke through a first line of defense between Robotyne and Verbove, about 15 kilometers southeast of Orikhiv, a strategic city. But the Russians appear to have pushed back the Ukrainian forces, to restore their original positions. Fierce fighting has also been reported around Velyka Novosilka, near the border of Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions.
Ukrainian officials are maintaining largely an operational silence on the counteroffensive, as they said they would do ahead of the campaign to reclaim Russian-occupied territory. In a YouTube send On Friday, the Ukrainian military said « the adversary remains on the defensive ».
While not formally acknowledging that the counteroffensive is in full swing, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly televised speech on Thursday that he was « in constant communication with our military. »
He added: “Donetsk region – very tough battles. But there is a result and I am grateful to everyone who secures this result! Bakhmut – well done. Step by step. »
The fierce fighting was foreshadowed by weeks of Ukrainian attacks looking for weak spots along the front line. Speaking at a White House press conference on Thursday, US President Joe Biden said he was « very optimistic » about how events are « evolving ».
« Great Tactical Challenge »
Pro-Kremlin social media platforms posted videos of a long Ukrainian armored column that came under heavy attack on Thursday. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu briefed President Vladimir Putin on the battles, including a major assault by the Ukrainian 47th Mechanized Brigade, which he said was repulsed in an hour-long battle at Zaporizhzhia.
Russian forces prepared several defensive lines in Zaporizhzhia, including minefields, trenches and « dragon’s teeth » tank traps. The British Royal United Services Institute noted in a recent relationship that Russian defenses could cause major problems for a Ukrainian counteroffensive. “Engineering has proven to be one of the strongest branches of the Russian military,” the report said.
« The now constructed defenses, consisting of complex field obstacles and fortifications, will present a major tactical challenge for Ukrainian offensive operations, » he added.
Zaporizhzhia was seen by experienced military observers prior to the counteroffensive as the most likely prime target of the Ukrainians, as a successful counterattack would provide the greatest potential reward, allowing Kievan forces to push towards Berdiansk, Melitopol and Tokmak, with the aim of sever the so-called land bridge connecting mainland Russia and the southern Ukrainian territories that Russia occupies across the Crimean Isthmus.
But Zelensky a week ago prepped Ukrainians for a hard, long work ahead and tried to temper expectations, saying fighting on the battlefield would take time and come at a high cost.