By Tom Balmforth
KYIV (Reuters) – President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Saturday that Ukrainian counter-offensive operations were underway, but declined to divulge details, telling a news conference to be passed on to Vladimir Putin that Ukrainian generals were optimists.
The Ukrainian leader, in his signature khaki fatigues, shrugged his shoulders at a news conference in Kyiv when asked about comments from the Russian president, who said on Friday that Kyiv had begun its counteroffensive, but failed to progress.
“Counter-offensive and defensive actions are taking place in Ukraine, but I will not say in detail what stage they are at,” Zelenskiy said, citing senior Ukrainian army officers by name.
“They (the generals) are all in a positive mood. Pass that on to Putin,” he said with a smile alongside visiting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Ukraine has said for months that it plans to mount a major counteroffensive to retake swaths of Russian-occupied land in the south and east. But he enforces strict operational silence and has denied starting the main operation for now.
Russia says Ukraine launched a major offensive this week, but Kyiv forces failed to break through its defenses and also suffered heavy casualties.
With little independent reporting from the front lines, it has been difficult to assess the state of the fighting.
The UK Ministry of Defense said Ukraine had carried out “significant” operations in several parts of the east and south over the past 48 hours, with Russian defenses breached in places.
“In some areas, Ukrainian forces probably made good progress and penetrated the first line of Russian defences. In others, Ukrainian progress was slower,” he said, also calling the performance a the Russian army of mixed.
“Some (Russian) units are likely conducting credible maneuver defense operations while others have retreated in some disorder, amid increased reports of Russian casualties as they retreat through their own minefields. “
“WE FIGHT BACK”
Ukraine’s counteroffensive is expected to use thousands of Western-trained and equipped troops, but Russia has built huge fortifications in occupied territory to prepare, while Kiev also lacks air supremacy.
The south is seen as a key strategic priority for a Ukrainian push that could aim to retake Europe’s largest nuclear power plant and cut Russia’s land bridge to the occupied Black Sea peninsula in Crimea, dividing Russian forces.
Ukraine reported gains in the east this week around Bakhmut, the devastated town Russia said it captured last month in the bloodiest fighting of the war.
On Saturday, Ukrainian military spokesman Serhiy Cherevaty said kyiv had made further gains.
“We are trying…to carry out strikes on the enemy, we are counterattacking. We managed to advance up to 1,400 meters (0.87 miles) on different sections of the front,” Cherevaty said.
The Russian Defense Ministry said that Ukrainian forces had continued in the past 24 hours with “unsuccessful” attempts to attack in the southern regions of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia, as well as in the area of the eastern town of Bakhmut.
Ukraine’s Third Assault Brigade released footage of what it described as offensive operations near Bakhmut where it said it caused Russian casualties and hit an ammunition dump.
Reuters was unable to independently verify the battlefield situation and statements from both sides.
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth and Felix Hoske; Editing by Alex Richardson, Andrew Cawthorne and Mike Harrison)