Fierce fighting continues on the front lines of Russia’s war on Ukraine, with both sides reportedly suffering heavy casualties in Kiev’s counter-offensive.
British intelligence assessed on Sunday that the heaviest fighting was concentrated in southeastern Zaporizhia province, around the city of Bakhmut, and further west in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk province.
Ukraine is aggressive in the area and has “made little progress”, it said. Russian forces are conducting “relatively effective defensive operations” in southern Ukraine.
Serhii Brachuk, a spokesman for the regional government of southwestern Odessa province, said Ukrainian forces destroyed a “very important” ammunition depot near the Russian-held port city of Henichesk in nearby Kherson province.
“Our armed forces took a good blow this morning,” Brachuk said in a video message posted on his Telegram channel.
Western analysts and military officials have warned that Ukraine’s counteroffensive could take a long time to dislodge Russian forces from occupied territory along the 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) front line.
A Russian-based official said Ukrainian troops had retaken Pyatikhatki, a village in the southern Zaporizhia region, and were entrenching themselves under fire from Russian artillery.
“The enemy’s ‘wave-like’ attack achieved results despite heavy losses,” official Vladimir Rogov said on the Telegram messaging app.
Russia’s Defense Ministry made no mention of Pyatikhatki in its daily update, which said its forces had repelled Ukrainian attacks in three sectors of the front line. A separate statement by Russia’s Vostok Group of Forces said Ukraine had failed to settle.
Al Jazeera could not independently verify the battlefield reports.
Ukraine’s military said on Sunday that Russia had launched 43 airstrikes, four missile strikes and 51 rocket attacks in the past 24 hours.
According to his statement, Russia continues to focus its efforts on offensive operations in Ukraine’s industrial east, with attacks centered on Bakhmut, Avdivka, Marinka and Lyman in Donetsk province, where 26 combat engagements have taken place.
‘No chance,’ said Putin
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi on Sunday praised Ukrainian forces for their “very effective” repulsion of enemy attacks near Avdivka.
He described the southern front as “the most brutal” and expressed his gratitude to the soldiers who fought there.
Meanwhile, Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Sunday that 32,000 former Russian prisoners had returned to Ukraine after their contracts with mercenary militias ended.
According to Prigogine, 83 crimes were committed by those who gained their freedom and returned to Russia, which he claimed was “80 times less” than the number committed by those released from prison in the same period without working with Wagner.
Prigogine toured Russian prisons to recruit fighters, promising pardons if they survived a half-year tour of front-line duty with Wagner. In an interview last month, Prigogine said he recruited 50,000 convicts, about 10,000 of whom were killed at Bakhmu.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who rarely comments during the war, made two unusually detailed interventions last week, in which he mocked the Ukrainian push and said Kiev’s forces “have no chance” despite being newly equipped with Western tanks.
His comments appeared intended to reassure the Russians at a crucial juncture in the nearly 16-month conflict, as Ukraine seeks to break months of virtual stalemate and take back 18 percent of its territory under Russian control.
Meanwhile, the United Nations said on Sunday that Russia had “so far rejected our request to enter areas under its temporary military control” after it destroyed the Nova Kakhovka dam in the southern region of Kherson on June 6, releasing 18 cubic kilometers (4.3 cubic miles) of water that submerged villages and farmland.
“The United Nations will continue to engage in necessary access. We call on the Russian authorities to act in accordance with their obligations under international humanitarian law,” Denis Brown, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Ukraine, said in a statement. “Help cannot be denied to those in need.”
Zelensky accused Russia of deliberately blowing up the dam, calling it a “war crime” and “cruel ecocide.” Moscow has denied responsibility for the explosion.