Ukrainian forces have stepped up their counteroffensive after two months of gruelling, incremental gains, mounting a new push in the south of the country while edging closer to the fiercely contested eastern city of Bakhmut.
The New York Times cited unnamed Pentagon officials as saying the “main thrust” of the counteroffensive had now begun, with the Ukrainian army pouring thousands of western-trained and equipped reinforcements into a perceived weak spot in Russian defences in the Zaporizhzhia region. However, the Washington Post reported that a US official “expressed caution” in drawing the conclusions that the main counteroffensive has begun. “We are seeing signs of preparatory moves for additional forces in the Zaporizhzhia area to come into the fight. But it’s not clear what the purpose of those moves may be,” the unnamed official was quoted as saying.
Earlier on Wednesday, Igor Konashenkov, the Russian defence ministry’s chief spokesperson, described a “massive” attack and fierce battles south of the settlement of Orikhiv, but said the attack had been repelled.
However, the Russian military blogger Rybar described an “attack by more than 80 armoured vehicles, including tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, armoured personnel carriers and combat vehicles”, adding that Ukrainian forces had managed to penetrate “in three areas … [amid] fierce battles.”
One immediate focus of the battles on Wednesday was the Russian-held village of Robotyne, but the major Ukrainian objectives are the heavily fortified city of Tokmak, and beyond, Melitopol, near the coast. Melitopol’s liberation would cut Russian forces on the southern front in two, and isolate occupied Crimea.
“This is the big test,” the New York Times quoted a senior US official as saying. Ukrainian commanders were reported to be trying to seize a moment of opportunity after weeks wearing down Russian defences in Zaporizhzhia and bombarding Russian ammunition stores and logistics hubs behind the frontlines. The sacking of the Russian commander in the region, Maj Gen Ivan Popov, after his criticism of military leadership, has also added to the sense that this may be a moment of Russian vulnerability in the area.
At the same time, Ukrainian forces have maintained an offensive around the Donetsk town of Bakhmut, where three months ago Russia claimed victory in a months-long and bloody battle for the devastated city.
In recent days, Ukraine’s troops were reported to have taken the village of Andriivka and to be advancing around the village of Klishchiivka, about four miles to the south, occupying important high ground and forests nearby.
Ukraine is attempting a partial encirclement of Bakhmut, pushing from the north and south to threaten Russian forces within.
A senior Ukrainian official said every available weapons system was being used in the battles, including recently supplied US cluster munitions.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based thinktank, described the claimed Ukrainian gains as “tactically significant”, and some Russian military bloggers appeared to confirm Ukraine’s progress.
The advance, if confirmed, would bring Ukraine’s forces closer to the important T053 highway, the north-south route that runs through the city.
“The enemy managed to occupy [Klishchiivka’s] adjacent heights, from where he deployed fire from anti-tank systems and sniper groups to support the advancing infantry and equipment,” one Russian military blogger reported. “Heavy battles have been going on for several days and enemy reconnaissance and strike drones have an important influence on the development of the situation.”
Andriy Kovaliov, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian armed forces general staff, said troops had advanced in the direction of the village of Staromayorske, in the Donetsk region, near settlements recaptured by Ukraine last month.
The Ukrainian troops were reinforcing the positions they had taken and Russian forces were mounting strong resistance, he said.
Around Andriivka, which had been used as a logistics hub by Russian forces, Russia deployed tanks and armoured vehicles to attempt to clear the treeline of Ukrainian forces, but apparently without sufficient infantry support, leading to significant losses of vehicles targeted by drones. There were claims of a Russian withdrawal from the settlement.
The ongoing fight for Bakhmut, where there has been continuous combat since early last summer, has underlined Russia’s fragile hold on the city and surrounding countryside since it emerged as an objective as its advance towards the eastern cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk faltered.
Throwing large numbers of troops into the fighting, spearheaded by forces from the private Wagner paramilitary, Moscow claimed a tentative victory in May after taking heavy losses in the efforts to take Bakhmut, with Ukrainian officials saying their defence tactics had been designed to wear down Russian forces.
Russia has intensified its attacks farther north in the area of Kreminna and Lyman, which analysts believe may be designed to relieve pressure to the south by drawing troops to that sector.
Since Kyiv launched its counteroffensive across the country this summer, officials have insisted that they have been advancing carefully so as to limit Ukrainian casualties. The deputy defence minister, Hanna Malyar, claimed earlier this week that Russian forces were sustaining losses at a significantly higher rate in the eastern battles. This may be explained by the heavy use of US-supplied cluster munitions in the recent fighting as Russia initially attempted to bring forward reserves.
The previously slow pace of Ukraine’s gains eight weeks into its counteroffensive has prompted some scepticism over whether Kyiv will be able to achieve a breakthrough as it has confronted Russia’s well-prepared defences, including barrier minefields that are 10 miles deep in places.
A leaked German intelligence reported that emerged on Tuesday reportedly claimed the counteroffensive had been hampered by the promotion of Ukrainian soldiers with battlefield experience over those who had been Nato-trained, leading to “considerable deficiencies in leadership” and tactics on the ground.
The Ukrainian armed forces had not responded to the claim reported by Bild. One UK defence source disputed the German assessment, telling the London Telegraph: “They [Ukrainians] certainly have plenty of problems, but I don’t think this German accusation is one of them.”
Since the decision by Washington to agree to supply Ukraine with cluster munitions – despite them being banned by a majority of countries – Ukraine has begun using the weapons more heavily against Russia’s defensive positions.