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Russia says Ukraine has launched a full-scale offensive in Donetsk

Kyiv has imposed an information blackout as Moscow and Russian military sources confirm multiple attacks on the eastern front

A video released by the Ukrainian Defense Ministry on Sunday shows its military gesturing to silence suggesting that no formal announcement of a possible counter offensive against Russia will be made. The on-screen text of the video reads "Plans love silence. There will be no announcement of the start."

Ukraine’s expected counteroffensive against Russian positions on the eastern front appears to have begun, with combat deployments that point to the moment having arrived. The Russian Defense Ministry has stated its belief that the Ukrainian attack was launched on Sunday. Moscow also claimed its Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov had personally traveled to the front to monitor the situation. Kyiv has been observing a campaign of silence: the order is that no details about the actions and movements of its military should be communicated. However, multiple Russian military sources and international observers have confirmed that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have gone on the attack in the east, in the provinces of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia. U.S. government sources have indicated to The New York Times that this is a sign that a major Ukrainian offensive is underway.

Kyiv has been intimating for weeks that a counteroffensive is imminent. Last Saturday, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told the Wall Street Journal that Ukraine was “ready” to launch an attack. Kyiv’s allies have also stated they have done their part. Spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council, John Kirby, said on June 2 that all the weapons needed for the counteroffensive had already been delivered, including M1A1 Abrams battle tanks and JDAM kits to convert free-falling shells into smart bombs capable of gliding long distances to hit their targets.

No political or military authorities in Ukraine have officially confirmed the recent actions on the front lines are the outset of a significant offensive, although two sources in the Ukrainian Army revealed to EL PAÍS on May 29 that Kyiv planned to go on the attack last week. “On the morning of June 4, the enemy launched a large-scale offensive in five sectors of the front in the South Donetsk direction” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement. The ministry added that the attack involved six mechanized battalions and two tank battalions, and released a video of an aerial shot in which it claimed dozens of armored vehicles are seen advancing.” Moscow said in its statement. “The enemy’s goal was to break through our defenses in the most vulnerable, in its opinion, sector of the front,” Moscow’s statement added. “The enemy did not achieve its tasks, it had no success.”

Moscow’s official line contrasts with the views of Russian observers at the front. Semion Pegov, one of Russia’s most respected military journalists, and Alexander Khodakovsky, who commanded the pro-Russian Vostok Battalion in the 2014 Donbas conflict, have reported Ukrainian advances on the southern front of Donetsk, bordering the province of Zaporizhzhia. Pegov stated that Ukrainian units have reached the village of Novodonetske, on the borders of the Russian-occupied territories in eastern Ukraine. Khodakovsky, meanwhile, said on social networks that Ukrainian forces simulated a failed attack from neighboring Velyka Novosilka on Sunday, but were building up forces to launch an assault on Novodonetske. The Russian military analysis group Rybar, as well as the pro-Russian military Telegram channel Two Majors, reported that Novodonetske was under Ukrainian control.

Khodakovsky added that Russian troops stationed in defensive positions have for the first time identified NATO-supplied Leopard tanks in combat. “The situation is difficult; in Novodonetske alone we have detected 30 enemy armored vehicles,” Khodakovsky said. Rybar, however, reported seeing only two Leopards in Novodonetske and said that Ukrainian forces had lost 10 armored vehicles in the fighting. Several U.S. and Ukrainian military analysts have countered that these were not Leopard tanks, but French AMX-10 armored infantry vehicles.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) claimed in its daily analysis of the invasion that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have also advanced on the Zaporizhzhia front, on the other side of the dividing line with Donetsk. Based on information from Russian Telegram channels, the ISW estimates progress has been limited to no more than three kilometers (1.8 miles). Western military sources told The Economist that the Ukrainian advance in the Donetsk area stood at six kilometers (3.7 miles). If confirmed, it would represent Ukraine’s largest single-day gain since last November’s counteroffensive in Kherson.

Frame from a video released by the Russian Defense Ministry that allegedly shows Ukrainian military vehicles at the frontline being repelled by Russian forces.
Frame from a video released by the Russian Defense Ministry that allegedly shows Ukrainian military vehicles at the frontline being repelled by Russian forces.AP

Rybar also reported that Ukrainian troops have gone on the offensive in Mala Tokmachka, further southwest on the Zaporizhzhia front. These attacks could indicate a Ukrainian push to break through on the northern and southern flanks, considered the most decisive for Kyiv because doing so would allow an advance towards the coast of the Sea of Azov, bringing the main supply lines for Russian troops on the southern front and Crimea within range of Ukrainian artillery.

Ukrainian forces have also redoubled their efforts in Bakhmut, according to Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar, who issued a statement that units in the area had opened “a broad front” around the city, which has been almost completely destroyed in months of bitter fighting and in the hands of the Russian Army since May. Maliar said that Ukrainian troops had taken up position on high ground and reiterated that the main objective is Bakhmut. Like other Ukrainian officials, Maliar has refused to talk about the counteroffensive: “Why are the Russians so actively passing on information about the counteroffensive? To divert attention from their retreat in Bakhmut,” she said.

Russian military journalist Sasha Kots confirmed early Monday that Ukrainian infantry were launching assaults on the southwestern neighborhoods of Bakhmut, and that artillery was hitting Soledar, an adjacent town also occupied by Russian forces. Euromaidan, a Ukrainian media outlet, reported that Ukrainian troops had retaken positions in neighborhoods in the southern perimeter of the city. Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner Group mercenaries, stated that Ukrainian units were on the verge of taking control of Berkhivka, a district north of Bakhmut, which has been under Russian control for months.

Attacks on Russian soil

Pressure is mounting on the Kremlin. While virtually all its forces are dug in inside Ukraine to face a full-scale offensive, its own territories remain unprotected against enemy incursions and shelling. According to the government of the Russian border region of Belgorod, the Ukrainian Armed Forces fired over 70 rockets from their Grad multiple launch systems against the village of Novaya Tavolzhanka, in the battered Shebekino district, overnight on Sunday.

Kyiv’s objective is to force Moscow to withdraw forces from the front line, thus weakening it. According to the authorities in Belgorod, over the last week 67 apartment buildings and 370 single-family houses have been damaged in the Shebekino district, which has been subjected to intense shelling.

Destroyed vehicles following what was said to be Ukrainian forces' shelling in the town of Shebekino in the Belgorod region, Russia, in this handout image released May 31, 2023.
Destroyed vehicles following what was said to be Ukrainian forces' shelling in the town of Shebekino in the Belgorod region, Russia, in this handout image released May 31, 2023. GOVERNOR OF BELGOROD REGION (via REUTERS)

Belgorod, the eponymous capital of which lies just 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Kherson, has been target by raids carried out by groups of anti-Kremlin saboteurs, supported by Kyiv. The latest attack took place on Sunday, when units of the ultranationalist Freedom of Russia Legion stormed Novaya Tavolzhanka and captured at least four Russian soldiers.

It is not known whether the troops taken prisoner were professional soldiers, conscripts, or volunteers from the amateur militias that the region has formed to protect itself. The region’s governor, Vyacheslav Gladkov, chaired an emergency council meeting and offered to arrange a parley to exchange the prisoners. “The only thing that stops me from negotiating with them is our guys, who are in their hands. Most likely they killed them, as hard as it is for me to say. But if they are alive, from 17:00 to 18:00 Shebekino International Automobile Checkpoint. I guarantee safety,” Gladkov said on Sunday.

The meeting, however, did not take place. After the deadline given by Gladkov, the Freedom of Russia Legion released a video showing the four alleged Russian prisoners and denounced the regional governor’s failure to show up for his own appointment. “The entire power of United Russia — Vladimir Putin’s party — represented by Governor Gladkov, sits and panics in their comfortable offices while they leave their people in our hands. Now that we have finally understood how rotten and cowardly the government in command is, there is no point in communicating with them,” the grouping said in a statement.

As well as Russian opponents of Putin operating in Belgorod, it has recently come to light that there are fighting units of Polish volunteers. Ukrainian special forces told EL PAÍS that there are other foreign groups supporting the Freedom of Russia Legion. However, the use of weaponry supplied by Ukraine’s Western allies in attacks on Russian territory has raised concern. The Belgian government will demand explanations from Kyiv over the use of weaponry supplied to Ukraine in the Belgorod operation. The Washington Post reported Monday that U.S., Polish and Czech materiel has also been used by the saboteurs. For Washington and the European Union, there is a clear line when it comes to weapons they have supplied being used in attacks on Russian territory.

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