Fighting is raging at several points on the front line, Russian and U.S. officials say.
Ukrainian forces stepped up their artillery strikes and ground assaults in a flurry of offensive military activity that by Monday was raging along multiple sectors of the front line, American and Russian officials said.
Ukraine has remained silent about military operations after months of preparing for a major counteroffensive in the war. But the American officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the surge in attacks was a possible indication that Kyiv’s long-planned counteroffensive against Russian forces had begun.
The officials based their assessment in part on information from U.S. military satellites, which detected an uptick in action from Ukrainian military positions. The satellites have infrared capabilities to track artillery fire and missile launches.
One difficulty in determining the exact start of a counteroffensive, beyond Ukraine’s operational security measures, is that the fighting could well begin with feints or diversions that are hard to decipher.
The Russian Ministry of Defense announced on Monday that a major Ukrainian operation had begun at five locations along the front in one eastern region, Donetsk, and said it had repelled the assaults and inflicted casualties on the Ukrainian forces. Moscow’s reports could not be corroborated.
However, Russian bloggers affiliated with the Russian military reported that Ukraine’s forces had advanced in some areas, including by capturing the village of Novodonetske in the Donetsk region.
Those claims could not be immediately verified, and there was no immediate response from the Ukrainian authorities to the statements.
The reported Ukrainian attacks were taking place to the east of where many analysts expected the counteroffensive to start. But even starting in that eastern area would allow Ukraine to try to accomplish the same goal: heading south toward the Sea of Azov and cutting the “land bridge” that connects Russian-occupied Crimea to Russia.
Buttressing the reports that the counteroffensive may have started, American military analysts said they believed Ukrainian units had begun an initial thrust to determine the position and strength of Russia’s forces. Such moves would be a traditional tactic of the kind Americans have been training Ukrainian forces to undertake.
Much is riding on Ukraine’s efforts to reclaim territory and free Ukrainians from living under occupation. Success could help support Kyiv’s push for longer term commitments for additional military aid and security guarantees from the West. It also could strengthen the hand of President Volodymyr Zelensky in any peace talks with Russia.Failure, or a lack of dramatic quick progress, could complicate Ukraine’s ability to get further assistance from the West and make Kyiv’s push for additional security guarantees at the NATO summit this summer more difficult.
Whatever precisely was happening, the relative calm that most of the long battle lines stretching across Ukraine had been experiencing was broken.
The front in southern and eastern Ukraine has been largely static for months, with the exception of intense fighting in Bakhmut and some testing operations by small Ukrainian units. In northeastern Ukraine, pro-Ukrainian forces also began cross-border raids into Russia last month.
The initial reports of the fighting Sunday night and Monday morning were of movements of larger units, a potential signal that Ukraine had pushed its NATO-trained forces into the fight.
Early on Monday, a Russian Telegram channel that reports on the war said Ukrainian forces had breached a first line of Russian defenses near Velyka Novosilka in Donetsk — not far from Novodonetske — and reclaimed two villages as Russian forces fell back to reserve positions. The fighting at another location was confirmed by the head of the regional occupation authority in the Zaporizhzhia region, Vladimir Rogov, in a post on Telegram. The bloggers’ reports about Novodonetske began to emerge on Monday afternoon.
Ukrainian officials have not told their American counterparts exactly when the counteroffensive will start, but have provided them with a time frame during which they intended to begin their push against Russian forces. Sunday was within that time frame, said U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.
The Pentagon has trained new Ukrainian units with the hope that they have the power to turn the tide of the battle, but some American officials have noted that dug in Russian defenders could prove difficult to dislodge.
Since March, smaller Ukrainian units of tanks and armored personnel carriers had conducted operations along the battle lines in Zaporizhzhia province. The true beginning of any offensive push, if that is what began Sunday, would involve larger units not just conducting probing attacks but actively trying to break through Russian defenses.
Andrew E. Kramer is the Times bureau chief in Kyiv. He was part of a team that won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for a series on Russia’s covert projection of power. @AndrewKramerNYT
Julian E. Barnes is a national security reporter based in Washington, covering the intelligence agencies. Before joining The Times in 2018, he wrote about security matters for The Wall Street Journal. @julianbarnes • Facebook
Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a Ukraine correspondent and a former Marine infantryman. @tmgneff
Eric Schmitt is a senior writer who has traveled the world covering terrorism and national security. He was also the Pentagon correspondent. A member of the Times staff since 1983, he has shared four Pulitzer Prizes. @EricSchmittNYT
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