Ukraine says it continues to advance against Russian troops encroaching south and east as the early stages of its much-publicized counteroffensive take shape.
Kiev said on Monday it had seized seven villages over the weekend and made small gains near the eastern city of Bakhmut.
“Seven settlements have been liberated,” Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said in a telegram, adding that the villages in the southern Zaporizhia region are Lobkovo, Levadne and Novodarivka.
The village of Storozhev in eastern Donetsk region – recaptured by three others on Sunday – was also reported to have been taken on Monday. A verified video shows soldiers holding Ukrainian flags in Storojeve along the Mokri Yali River.
“At first the enemy resisted, trying to repulse our attack with artillery. We were able to regain the initiative and slowly – house by house – began to retake the village,” said an unidentified Ukrainian fighter in the video.
Maliar said a total of 90 square kilometers (35 square miles) of territory along the front line had been recaptured by Ukrainian forces in recent days.
But the gains amounted to only minor territory and underscored the difficulty of the war ahead for Ukrainian units, who would have to fight meter by meter to retake about a fifth of their country held by Russia.
‘Battle is hard’
Russia, meanwhile, said on Monday it had repelled Ukrainian attacks in several areas.
Vladimir Rogov, an official in the Moscow-based administration of the Zaporizhia region on the western edge of the front line, said there was “heavy fighting” in the area involving Russian artillery, mortars and air power.
Alexander Coates, a military correspondent for the Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, said Ukrainian forces were trying to advance – despite heavy casualties – on the town of Staromlinovka, which lies on the strategic highway leading to the port city of Mariupol.
Russian forces captured the city a year ago after months of fierce and desperate defense by Ukrainian forces.
Various claims of territorial gains could not be independently verified and could be contradicted by the side of the ground war.
The military push is already the fastest progress in Ukraine for seven months, though still far short of a major breakthrough.
The task of ending Moscow’s occupation of southern and eastern Ukraine has been adventurous, with Russia’s numerical superiority in men, ammunition and air power, as well as building deep defensive fortifications over many months.
“The battles are tough but our movement is there – and that’s very important,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly video address. “Enemy damage is all we need.”
He added that the rainy weather was challenging his troops and that he had discussed with his military commanders, “what points on our front we need to strengthen and what steps we can take to break further Russian positions”.
‘Tough times for Russia’
Some Western military analysts say it is too early to decide on a counterattack and that the clashes so far may show that Ukraine is still only testing Russian defenses.
The US-based Institute for the Study of War said Ukraine was attempting “an extraordinarily difficult tactical operation – a frontal attack against prepared defensive positions, made more complicated by a lack of air superiority”. The initial attack results should not be over-interpreted, it added.
Ben Hodges, the former commander of US forces in Europe, said the main strike – when it comes – will consist of hundreds of tanks and infantry fighting vehicles.
“The offensive has clearly begun, but I don’t think the main offensive,” he wrote in an article for the Washington, DC-based Center for European Policy Analysis.
Russia has yet to face such an attack, but its incredible battlefield performance since its full-scale offensive in the 15 months since has led to repeated command changes and public spats with private militias summoned to fight alongside the army.
President Vladimir Putin marked Russia’s National Day with an awards ceremony at the Kremlin on Monday but made only a glancing mention in a speech of the war he launched in February 2022.
“Today, in a difficult time for Russia, [feelings of patriotism and pride] Unite our society more firmly … and serve as a reliable support for our heroes participating in special military operations,” said Putin.