While kyiv remains silent on the start of any counter-offensive, fighting rages in several sections of the front line, signaling that the long-awaited campaign could begin.
A video, released over the weekend by Ukraine, shows several of its soldiers in full combat gear raising a finger to their lips. “Plans like silence. There will be no announcement of departure,” the words then flash on the screen, followed by warplanes in flight.
Moscow claims to have successfully repelled a Ukrainian attempt to ram into Russian defences, but some pro-Kremlin military bloggers paint a different picture, acknowledging that Kiev troops made quick gains.
In recent weeks, Ukraine has intensified the bombardment of Russian positions and successfully repelled Russian attempts to extend its gains outside the eastern town of Bakhmut which it recaptured last month in the battle the longest and bloodiest of the war.
Pro-Kyiv Russian paramilitary groups that fought alongside Ukrainian armed forces have also launched cross-border incursions into Russian territory, attacking the Belgorod region.
Ukrainian bombardments and cross-border incursions have ravaged several towns and villages near the border and forced the evacuation of thousands of inhabitants, angering Russian hawks who blamed the Kremlin for not resolutely retaliating.
And on May 30, a rare drone attack targeted Moscow, causing only minor damage but revealing glaring breaches in the capital’s air defenses and highlighting its vulnerability.
Military analysts describe the attacks as part of ‘shaping operations’, a series of measures designed to probe Russian defences, force Moscow to disperse its forces and draw attention to areas where Ukraine could concentrate his counter-offensive.
The Russian military, in turn, has stepped up its strikes deep inside Ukraine, launching a barrage of near-daily drone and missile attacks on high-value military installations.
Russia said it destroyed American-made Patriot missile defense systems in Kyiv, successfully struck military intelligence headquarters, also in the Ukrainian capital, and hit airbases and weapons stockpiles in several regions. These claims could not be independently verified. Ukrainian officials acknowledged some of the strikes but remained enigmatic about the damage.
Russian military bloggers have described them as part of Moscow’s effort to derail the counteroffensive by softening Ukraine’s air defenses and destroying Western weapons and ammunition intended for the campaign.
In Washington, a US official speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues said: “We have no reason to believe that any Russian action has had any adverse effect on ongoing Ukrainian operations. or in progress”.
Both sides have sought to deceive and weaken each other through propaganda and disinformation.
On Sunday, Ukraine hacked into some TV broadcasts in Crimea to air a threatening Ukrainian military statement on the counter-offensive.
In an unprecedented move meant to undermine morale, broadcasts in several Russian regions were hacked on Monday to broadcast a fake address by President Vladimir Putin in which a voice resembling his own was heard declaring martial law, a national mobilization and a massive evacuation of three border regions.
kyiv, in turn, accused Moscow of hybrid warfare. He said Russian allegations of a major Ukrainian attempt to breach Russian defenses were part of “information and psychological operations” intended to “demoralize Ukrainians and mislead the community”.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak mocked the Russian claims as “virtual reality”, saying sardonically: “Moscow is already actively involved in suppressing…a global offensive that does not yet exist.”
THE MAIN STRIKE
Military analysts say Ukraine tried to hide its intentions by launching multiple attacks on several sectors of the front line to force Russia to disperse its resources and divert them from where the main strike would be launched.
“Attacks in the Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions, developments in Russia’s Belgorod region and increasingly frequent strikes against Russian military depots in the rear are all part of the preparations for the Ukrainian counteroffensive,” said Ukrainian military analyst Roman Svitan. “kyiv looks for Russia’s weak points and tries to stretch the front as widely as possible.”
Many military experts expect Ukraine to try to break through Russian defenses towards the Sea of Azov coast to break the land corridor to Crimea that Moscow created after capturing the key port of Mariupol in May 2022.
Russian officials and military bloggers have suggested that the latest attacks in the southern part of Donetsk region and neighboring Zaporizhzhia region that began on Sunday could herald the start of this big push.
The Russian Defense Ministry said Ukraine sent several battalions on Sunday to try to ram into Russian defensive positions, which were pushed back after suffering heavy losses.
Some Russian military bloggers offered a less optimistic view, saying Ukrainian troops managed to make gains on Sunday and invested more resources to build on that success. Some said that for the first time German-made Leopard tanks were seen in large numbers in the area.
TASKS AND CHALLENGES
Whether or not the latest fighting marks the start of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, many observers have warned against expectations of a quick breakthrough that could end the war quickly.
“We have to understand that what we call the Ukraine counter-offensive is not like a game of football,” said General Sir Richard Barrons, former commander of United Kingdom Joint Forces Command. “You know it’s not going to be done and dusted in 90 minutes with half time on an appointed day. It’s been at least nine months of preparation in the sense that they had to recover arms and ammunition from NATO . Not enough, I think, yet.”
Barrons, who is co-chairman of the consultancy group Universal Defense & Security Solutions, noted that Russia has strengthened its forces, replenished some of its ammunition stockpiles and built complex defensive lines.
“Russia had time to put up a classic fixed defence,” he said, with three lines of trenches and held positions allowing tanks to move forward to fire on the attackers.
“They will have rehearsed the artillery fire plan in support of the defense of those lines, and they will have rehearsed the crucial quick counter-attacks, which are so vital when you are trying to restore a line that is under attack,” he said. Barrons added.
He predicted that Ukraine would try to concentrate its nine newly formed brigades armed with Western weapons to crash into Russian defenses in just one, two or three places, trying to concentrate their forces to have a significant numerical superiority “in order to fight their way through and then exploit and hold the ground they have taken.
The offensive “is going to be, in a land sense, a pretty narrow facade,” he said.
“I’d be surprised if it’s over 20 miles, to be honest,” Barrons added. “Success on the battlefield must be enough to show the hope and prospect of binding additional strategic support.”
He pointed out that the Russian military had learned from its setbacks last fall when it withdrew from large areas of the Kharkiv and Kherson regions under the weight of a Ukrainian counteroffensive, noting that it could be harder this time for Ukraine to fend off the Russians.
“What is most important about this offensive is that whenever it comes, no matter how successful, it is simply not possible for it to drive all the Russians out of Ukraine unless that the Russians decide to give up and leave,” Barrons said. “And they’re not going to do that.”
The West must mobilize its military industries to build support for Ukraine to enable it to win, he said.
“The key to this counteroffensive is to show enough success on the battlefield to show the West that the right and reasonable thing to do is to continue industrial mobilization,” Barrons said, believing that Europe must spend around 100 billion euros ($107 billion). per year for the next three years.
Associated Press writers Danica Kirka in London, Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia, and Tara Copp in Washington contributed.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/ukraine