By RFE RL
By Mike Eckel
(RFE/RL) — Armed with Western tanks and trained by NATO troops, Ukrainian forces have kicked their offensive operations into high gear, attacking Russian units on at least three fronts as part of a multipronged assault that Kyiv hopes will turn the tide of the war more than 15 months after Russia’s full-scale invasion.
Intense fighting was reported over the past two days in the southern Zaporizhzhiya region, around the towns of Orikhiv and Tokmak, which sits astride two major highways leading south and southwest. Capturing Tokmak would open the door for Ukrainian troops to push into Melitopol, bringing them close to the occupied Crimean Peninsula, and Berdyansk, a major port on the Sea of Azov.
Fighting was reported further east, around the village of Velyka Novosilka, close to the administrative border between the Zaporizhzhya and Donetsk regions, and near Vuhledar, which was the site of a catastrophic defeat for Russian forces in February. Major clashes were also reported around Bakhmut, a Donetsk region city that Russia captured last month after nearly 10 months of scorched-earth, urban combat that all but obliterated the city.
Ukrainian officials have said little publicly about the beginnings of the push, though President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Ukraine’s commander-in-chief, General Valeriy Zaluzhniy, have signaled the offensive was imminent.
“Regarding Ukraine’s defensive and offensive actions, of course they’re under way,” Mykhaylo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskiy’s presidential office, told RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service on June 9.
“It’s fair to say the offensive has begun,” Mick Ryan, a retired Australian general who has written extensively about the war, told RFE/RL.
Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said fierce fighting was occurring at various locations in the Donetsk region, and that Ukrainian troops were on the offensive.
In his nightly video address on June 8, Zelenskiy said there were “very difficult battles” going on in the Donetsk region.
The increased tempo in combat in recent days has been closely documented by Russian military bloggers, some of whom have close ties to military units or security agencies, including claims that Ukrainian troops were suffering major losses of troops and equipment. Some of the claims included videos purporting to show at least two German-supplied Leopard tanks damaged or destroyed in a localized push by Ukrainian forces in southeast Zaporizhzhya.
“We’re seeing new NATO equipment like Leopard 2 tanks and AMX-10,” a French armored vehicle, said Rob Lee, a former U.S. Marine who is now a military expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. That “indicates that at least some of Ukraine’s new brigades have been committed and that the counteroffensive is under way.”
Russia’s Defense Ministry, meanwhile, said as early as June 5 that new Ukrainian operations were under way, reporting a “large-scale offensive on five sectors of the front in the southern Donetsk area.” Unnamed U.S. administration officials told The Washington Post that the Ukrainian effort got under way on June 5.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on June 8 that Russian forces had beaten back a Ukrainian attack near Novodaryivka, in the Zaporizhzhya region just west of the Donetsk region line and Velyka Novosilka, that involved one of several newly constituted, Western-trained units, the 47th Separate Mechanized Brigade. Shoigu claimed up to 1,500 troops and 150 tanks and armored vehicles were involved in the fight, a claim that could not be corroborated.
The ministry’s claims of Ukrainian failure were echoed by other, widely read Telegram channels of pro-Russian military bloggers.
“Despite the failure of the Ukrainian offensive, it is too early to relax: the enemy is just beginning to seriously attack in the Zaporizhzhya direction,” Rybar, a channel reportedly affiliated with former Defense Ministry officials, said late on June 8. “In addition, a blow should be expected in other sectors of the front.”
Vladimir Rogov, a Russian-installed official in the part of Zaporzhzhya occupied by Russian forces, said Ukrainian troops went on the offensive near Malaya Tokmachka and Novodanilovka, reports that were partly corroborated by other sources.
“There is a high-intensity battle going on right now. The enemy is firing continuously from artillery and tanks at our positions, trying to raze them to the ground,” he said on Telegram on June 8.
“I assume that the enemy will not stop the attacks that have been launched, will not change plans on the go, and we will have a long bloody battle,” said Igor Girkin, a former Russian intelligence officer convicted for his role in the deadly downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014 over eastern Ukraine.
“Depending on the success of the enemy, it can last from several days (4-5) to 2-3 weeks,” he said on Telegram. “If the enemy manages to achieve at least minimally encouraging successes, he will beat and beat forward, in hopes of a breakthrough.”
A Shift In Tempo
There had been a lull in fighting across much of the 1,000-kilometer front line after Ukraine’s stunning counteroffensives last fall, in which its forces swept east to push Russian troops out of the Kharkiv region and parts of the Luhansk region. Kyiv also scored a notable success in pushing Russian troops from the western bank of the Dnieper River in the Kherson region, including the city of Kherson.
Over the winter, Russia, bolstered by some of the nearly 300,000 troops ordered mobilized by Russian President Vladimir Putin, made smaller-scale pushes in Vuhledar. And Russian commanders ground down Ukrainian troops in Bakhmut, relying heavily on soldiers from the private mercenary company Wagner.
For its part, Ukraine tried to absorb the blows, particularly in Bakhmut, while it also bolstered its arsenals with new Western-provided tanks, artillery, armored vehicles, and other equipment. Ukrainian commanders also turned to NATO members to train and reconstitute as many as 12 new brigades. That includes the 47th Separate Mechanized Brigade, which has been equipped with U.S.-supplied Bradley fighting vehicles.
“Not all of Ukraine’s new brigades have been committed,” Lee told RFE/RL. “So, Ukraine may attempt to advance in other directions. I also think much of this depends on how much success Ukraine has in the current directions, which may lead Ukraine to commit reserves there or elsewhere.”
Outside observers, not to mention Russian intelligence, have been watching closely for signs where Ukraine might start its new push. Southern regions like Zaporizhzhya were considered likeliest, since the terrain is largely flat and open, and pushing south to the Sea of Azov would potentially allow Ukraine to cut the “land bridge” that allows Russia to supply occupied Crimea.
However, Russia has spent months fortifying the terrain, digging trenches, laying minefields, installing anti-tank barriers, erecting other obstacles.
“Really what we’re seeing is the initial attacks, that the Ukrainians will be using to prod Russian reaction,” Ryan said. “It’s not just about finding weakness in the Russian lines. It’s about prompting Russian reactions. When do they move their reserves? When they can be targeted? Where are their headquarters?”
“Attacks are not just designed to attack Russian units, but to prod a reaction from high-level decision makers,” he said.
“The Ukrainians seem to be trying to fight their way through the Russian defenses. That’s going to be hard and there will be many losses. The fact that there are losses does not mean that the Ukrainians are losing,” Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps officer and senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told RFE/RL.
Western officials have said nothing publicly. Asked on June 8 about the reports of the new offensive, a U.S. Defense Department spokesman said that “we’re monitoring reports of increased fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces [along the front line]…. But when it comes to characterizing the fighting, that’s best left to the Ukrainians.”
But U.S. officials speaking anonymously have told Western media that the counteroffensive was fully under way.
The launch of the counteroffensive has coincided with the catastrophic failure of the Dnieper River dam at Nova Kakhovka earlier this week. The Russian-controlled dam burst on June 6 — Ukraine claims it was destroyed in an explosion caused by Russian forces — flooding hundreds of square kilometers in the Kherson region.
Some experts have speculated that the dam’s destruction was intentional, to thwart a potential river crossing by Ukrainian troops. However, the floodwaters have also swamped many of the Russian trenches and other fortifications in the region, raising the question of why Russia would cause the breach intentionally. Moreover, once the floodwaters recede, it could be even easier for Ukrainian troops to stage crossings to the opposite riverbank.
The new push is likely to be one of the most, if not the most, consequential actions of the invasion, demonstrating whether Ukraine can again surprise allies and outside observers, like it did with earlier successes such as in the early days after the invasion, when Ukraine thwarted the Russian effort to seize the capital, Kyiv.
“The Ukrainians fought the Russians off of Kyiv, that’s where the West saw the Ukrainians could fight,” Ryan said. “No doubt that this (new effort) is also very important moment in the war.”
If Ukraine pulls off a major success, that will reassure Western allies, some of whom have grown impatient with the scope of equipment supplies and the continuing international instability stemming from the fight. If they don’t, however, pressure on Kyiv to agree to negotiations with Moscow will grow.
“As long as you’re making less mistakes than your enemy, that’s what matters,” Ryan said. “The Ukrainians don’t claim to be a perfect military, but they’ve made a lot less mistakes than their enemy has.”
- Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He’s reported on the ground on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.