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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Ukraine mounts major offensive against Russian lines in south

A Ukrainian soldier with the 110th Separate Mechanized Brigade in the Donetsk region on Wednesday.

By Eric Schmitt, Anatoly Kurmanaev and Andrew E. Kramer

Ukrainian forces mounted a major attack overnight Thursday in the southern region of Zaporizhzhia, as Ukraine’s army went on the offensive on multiple fronts in an operation that carries high stakes for Kyiv and its Western allies.

A senior U.S. official said Thursday that the attack appeared to be a main thrust of a much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive. Russia claimed its forces had withstood a Ukrainian assault involving tanks and armored vehicles, saying it had so far thwarted Ukraine’s attempts to recapture land. Kyiv remained quiet on the intensified fighting.

For months, Ukrainian officials have been mobilizing new units, gathering weapons and training for what its leaders have billed as a major counteroffensive aimed at pushing Russian forces back and retaking occupied territory.

In recent days, Russia has reported that Ukrainian forces have launched attacks on front lines in the east and south. The fighting in the east, in the Donetsk region, prompted U.S. officials this week to say that the counteroffensive may have begun.

Taken together, these attacks suggest Ukrainian forces are increasingly on the offensive, though it remains unclear whether the assaults on Russian lines are preludes to a larger push or mark the start of the much-anticipated counteroffensive Ukraine’s generals have said they have planned.

U.S. officials, including the one who spoke Thursday, requested anonymity to discuss operational details.

The Russian defense ministry said Thursday that Moscow’s forces had repelled a Ukrainian attack near Novodarivka, in the southern Zaporizhzhia region. Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, said that forces of Ukraine’s 47th Mechanized Brigade including dozens of armored vehicles “made an attempt to break through Russia’s defense” but that Moscow’s air and ground forces repelled the attack.

The Russian account could not be verified. There was no immediate comment from Ukrainian officials, who have said they will remain silent on details of the counteroffensive for operational secrecy.

U.S. and Ukrainian officials have said the counteroffensive would involve attacks on multiple locations, as Ukraine’s forces push forward, looking for vulnerabilities in Russia’s defensive lines.

Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia, said that Ukraine had amassed Western-provided Leopard tanks and American-made Bradley fighting vehicles near Zaporizhzhia, in a possible sign that a major assault there was underway.

Pro-war Russian military bloggers, who have become a major source of information from the front lines, acknowledged an intensification of Ukrainian attacks on the Zaporizhzhia front but claimed Thursday morning that Russian defenses in the area were holding, aided by sustained strikes by the Russian air force.

“After a day of continuous fighting, there’s indirect information about insignificant puncturing of defenses, there are no breakthroughs,” former Russian paramilitary commander Igor Girkin wrote on the Telegram messaging app Thursday morning. It was impossible to immediately verify his claim.

Britain’s defense intelligence agency said in its daily assessment Thursday that “heavy fighting continues along multiple sectors of the front.” It added: “In most areas Ukraine holds the initiative.”

Ukraine has spent months preparing for a counteroffensive, bolstered by fresh deliveries of sophisticated weapons, ammunition and pledges of support from its Western allies.

Billions of dollars worth of weapons — including German-made Leopard 2s and Bradleys — were rushed to Ukraine for use in their campaign. Crews were quickly trained; Britain, the United States and other allies trained nine of 12 newly formed and equipped brigades expected to take part in the fighting, alongside other Ukrainian units.

Western support has been solid so far but is not guaranteed in the long term. The U.S. budget for military assistance, for example, is expected to run out by around September.

If the Ukrainian army fails to break through Russia’s mine belts, tank traps and trench lines despite the outpouring of aid, support in the West for arming Kyiv’s forces could shrink — and Ukraine’s government could come under pressure from allies to enter serious negotiations to end or freeze the conflict.

But the table-flat terrain with little cover along parts of the southern front — which leaves any grouping of troops or armored vehicles immediately vulnerable to enemy artillery — and extensive Russian defenses built up over months render it a formidable task for Ukraine’s military.

Adding to the challenges for both armies is the destruction of the Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine this week, which has caused widespread flooding in the partially occupied Kherson region that could erode some of Russia’s defensive positions but also make it harder for Ukrainian forces to advance there. But military experts have said they do not believe that area — which is to the southwest of Zaporizhzhia — will be an immediate focus of the counteroffensive, and Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has said that the dam disaster will not affect Kyiv’s military plans.

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