Ukraine claims first territorial gains of counteroffensive
By Andrew E. Kramer
Fighting raged Sunday in at least three sectors of the front in Ukraine, as the Ukrainian military claimed its first, small territorial gains in the initial stages of its counteroffensive.
Ukraine had been silent about the course of the combat in the opening week of the military operation, which is expected to become one of the largest in Europe since World War II, but is currently seen as at a stage of probing attacks and feints.
On Sunday, Ukraine’s 68th brigade released a statement on Facebook claiming to have taken Blahodatne, in the eastern region of Donetsk, with video footage showing its soldiers raising their country’s blue and yellow flag over the village. A separate unit, the Ukrainian Volunteer Army, said it had reclaimed a nearby village, Neskuchne.
The claims could not immediately be independently verified and come as Ukrainian forces have unquestionably also suffered losses of both troops and equipment as the counteroffensive begins to take shape.
It was not clear whether either village was beyond the first lines of Russian defenses or amid them — meaning it remained to be seen whether the announcements also signaled that Ukraine had managed to break through Russian defensive lines.
The Ukrainian military had earlier acknowledged fighting in the area, near the town of Velyka Novosilka, around 30 miles west of Blahodatne, but provided no details. Further advances to the south from this location could cut rail and road links between Russia and the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula, an objective of the counteroffensive.
Neskuchne is directly north of Blahodatne and the volunteer unit said that it had taken the village on Saturday. The group also posted on Facebook what it said was an interrogation of a Russian soldier captured as a prisoner of war.
An influential Russian military commentator, Igor Girkin, posted on social media on Sunday that Russian forces had withdrawn from Neskuchne. There was no comment from Russia’s Ministry of Defense about the status of the village.
There was also no comment about the status of Blahodatne from the defense ministry, which has asserted that it repelled Ukrainian attacks in the first week of fighting, and has published videos of destroyed Western-provided tanks and armored personnel carriers.
Ukraine and its Western allies have spent months preparing for the widely anticipated counteroffensive, with the United States and European nations training tens of thousands of soldiers and transferring modern battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine’s forces.
Any fighting is expected to be bloody and brutally violent, with assaults likely to result in high casualties on the Ukrainian side. Throughout the 15-month-long war Ukraine’s military has largely refrained from publicizing its own casualty numbers or losses.
U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, have confirmed that Ukrainian forces had suffered losses in the recent fight as did the Russians, but would not quantify the casualties. At least three German-made Leopard 2 tanks and eight American-made Bradley Fighting Vehicles were recently abandoned by Ukrainian troops or destroyed, based on videos and photographs posted by pro-war Russian bloggers and verified by The New York Times.
The statement on Sunday from Ukraine’s 68th brigade asserted that its soldiers, fighting in coordination with other units, had reclaimed Blahodatne, with Russian forces putting up resistance “until the last” moment.
“We are driving the enemy from our homeland,” an unidentified soldier says in the video. “It’s the most pleasant feeling. Ukraine will be victorious.”
In the video, the soldiers hang a flag from an upper-story window of what appears to be a partially destroyed school. The Times has not independently verified the video.
The assault on Blahodatne had initially stalled at the edge of the village early Sunday, according to Valeriy Shershen, a spokesperson for the military in the Donetsk region, who provided details of the fighting. Russian forces had firing positions in the village’s school and cultural club, he said.
“They were firing from these points,” he said, preventing any advance. The Ukrainian assault group simultaneously attacked both buildings, he said, entering the cultural club unexpectedly for the Russians by blowing a hole in a wall and then climbing in to fight room to room. His account could not be independently confirmed.
In an indication of the vast volumes of ammunition required for assault operations, Ukrainian artillery teams over the past day received 1,520 orders to fire at targets in the Zaporizhzhia and southern Donetsk regions where battles attempting to break through Russian defensive lines are underway, Shershen said.