Russia says it thwarted major attack in Ukraine but lost some ground


  • World
  • Monday, 05 Jun 2023

FILE PHOTO: View of military vehicles as Ukrainian forces destroy Russian positions in direction of Bakhmut, near Klischiivka, Donetsk Region, Ukraine, in this screengrab taken from a video released on June 4, 2023. 3rd Assault Brigade / Ukrainian Armed Forces Press Service/Handout via REUTERS

KYIV (Reuters) - Moscow said on Monday it had thwarted a major offensive against its forces in eastern Ukraine, although it was unclear whether the attack formed the beginning of Ukraine's long-anticipated counteroffensive.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was enigmatic in his nightly video, hailing "the news we have been waiting for" in Bakhmut in the east. But he did not refer directly to a counteroffensive, which he had said he was ready to launch in a Wall Street Journal interview published on Saturday.

Ukrainian officials made no mention of any broad, significant new campaign or sidestepped questions on the matter.

The Washington Post reported that some U.S. officials thought the counteroffensive was underway, but White House national security spokesperson John Kirby declined to say whether he thought this was the case.

"I'm not going to be talking for the Ukrainian military. That's for them to speak to," he told a regular briefing, although he stressed the work the United States had done to ensure the Ukrainians were ready.

"So whether it's starting now, or starting soon, or whenever they decide to step up and whatever they decide to do, the president is confident that we did everything we could over the last six, eight months or more to make sure that they had all the equipment, the training, the capabilities to be successful."

HIGH STAKES

The success or failure of a counteroffensive, expected to be waged with billions of dollars worth of advanced Western weaponry, is likely to influence the shape of future Western diplomatic and military support for Ukraine.

Russia's defence ministry said Ukraine had attacked on Sunday morning with six mechanised and two tank battalions in southern Donetsk, where Moscow has long suspected Ukraine would seek to drive a wedge through Russian-controlled territory.

"On the morning of June 4, the enemy launched a large-scale offensive in five sectors of the front in the South Donetsk direction," the defence ministry said in a statement.

"The enemy's goal was to break through our defences in the most vulnerable, in its opinion, sector of the front," it said. "The enemy did not achieve its tasks, it had no success."

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told Reuters on Monday Ukraine now had enough weapons for a counteroffensive but declined to comment when asked whether it had begun.

In its evening report, Ukraine's General Staff made no mention of any large-scale offensive operation, nor did it suggest any deviation from the usual tempo or scope of fighting along front lines that have not changed significantly for months.

Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said on Telegram Ukraine was "shifting to offensive actions" along parts of the front but dismissed suggestions this was part of a major operation.

Maliar said later on state TV Ukrainian forces had made advances of between 200 metres and 1,600 metres (660 feet to one mile) around two villages north of the long embattled eastern city of Bakhmut and 100 to 700 metres around villages to the west and south.

Russian Wagner group mercenaries captured Bakhmut last month after the longest battle of the war and handed their positions there to regular Russian troops, but Kyiv has since been attacking Russian-held areas to the north and south of the city.

"The main focus now is on the Bakhmut sector," said Maliar. "And as of now, this has resulted in certain successes including advances. We have taken control of certain heights."

An armed forces video showed Russian positions under fire and Wagner militia leader Yevgeny Prigozhin said Ukrainian forces had retaken part of the settlement of Berkhivka, northwest of Bakhmut, calling it a "disgrace".

'TOUGH FIGHT GOING ON'

Russia's defence ministry released video of what it said were Ukrainian armoured vehicles in a field blowing up after being hit.

Reuters was able to confirm the location of two clips near Velyka Novosilka, a village west of Vuhledar in the southern part of Donetsk province, by the road layout, terrain, trees and other foliage that matched satellite imagery. Reuters could not independently verify the other clips or the date the videos were filmed, or other battlefield reports.

"There is a tough fight going on," wrote prominent Russian military blogger Semyon Pegov, who uses the name War Gonzo, saying Ukrainian forces were attacking in the area.

Russia's defence ministry said Russian forces killed 250 Ukrainian soldiers and destroyed 16 tanks, three infantry fighting vehicles and 21 armoured combat vehicles.

Russia now controls at least 18% of internationally recognised Ukrainian territory and has claimed four more regions of Ukraine as Russian territory after annexing Crimea in 2014.

Putin sent troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24 last year in what the Kremlin expected to be a swift operation, but its forces suffered a series of defeats and had to move back and regroup in swathes of the country's east.

For months, tens of thousands of Russian troops have been digging in along a front line that stretches for around 600 miles (1,000 km), bracing for a Ukrainian attack expected to try to cut Russia's so-called land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula.

(Additional reporting by Max Hunder, Dan Peleschuk and Ron Popeski; writing by Mark Heinrich, David Brunnstrom, Lidia Kelly, David Ljunggren and Philippa Fletcher; editing by Hugh Lawson and Rosalba O'Brien)

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