Combat is extending well beyond Bakhmut
On Tuesday Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed that his forces had thwarted what he described as the first three days of a Ukrainian counteroffensive. He stated: “The Ukrainian regime launched a long-promised offensive in different sectors of the front […] The enemy did not achieve its goal.”
If this is indeed the Ukrainian counteroffensive, the Russians are saying more about it than their battlefield opponents. While Ukrainian officials have refused to be drawn on the issue — to the extent of Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov even tweeting a link to a Depeche Mode song and noting that “words are very unnecessary” — there are signs on the front line that the long-awaited assault is finally here.
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On Sunday, the Russian Defence Ministry claimed that it had thwarted two large-scale assaults on five axes in the south of Donetsk province, in eastern Ukraine, which had reportedly aimed at breaking through the front line in an area Ukraine believed to be vulnerable. The following day, the Commander of Ukraine’s ground forces Oleksandr Syrskyi said that his troops were “moving forward” near Bakhmut, while the country’s Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar commented that Ukraine’s military units “advanced in several directions during the fighting”.
Combat has been taking place in Bakhmut, described by Maliar as the “epicentre of hostilities” and a location where Ukraine seems to be enjoying a measure of success. While Wagner mercenary forces claimed control of the city in May after a prolonged and bloody battle, on Monday the group’s chief Yevgeny Prigozhin castigated Russian troops for “running away”, and said that part of the nearby settlement of Berkivka had already fallen to Ukraine. For his part, Denis Pushilin, the Moscow-backed governor of the Donetsk region, has admitted that the situation in Bakhmut is “very difficult”.
Beyond Bakhmut, Ukraine has launched probing attacks seeking to find areas of Russian weakness in the frontline and has already made use of drone attacks in a bid to destroy enemy tanks and positions.
Despite what appear to be early successes, it is unlikely that Ukraine will be able to push back enemy forces in one fell swoop, given the amount of territory under Russian occupation. Ukrainian officials are now privately discussing a rolling “spring-summer” campaign which may go into September and even beyond.
Russia has also used the long winter to prepare — the UK Ministry of Defence noted as far back as November that Russia was constructing elaborate defensive structures to protect Mariupol, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, including concrete blocks known as “dragon’s teeth” and designed to slow advancing vehicles. The Ukrainians will also have to contend with the mines left across the front line.
On Monday night, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy used his address to the public to reassure citizens that “Russia will lose this war” and that Ukraine is “preparing […] new steps to further limit Russia’s military potential”. He added that there is “more news to come soon”. Despite the great difficulties which lie ahead, it would appear that Ukraine is finally launching its counteroffensive.