Ukrainian forces launched a major attack in the southern Zaporizhia region on Thursday, taking the offensive against Russian invaders in multiple locations in the east and south, but there was no sign of a decisive breakthrough in an operation that carries great risks for Kiev and its Western allies.
Three senior U.S. officials and military analysts said a long-awaited major Ukrainian counteroffensive appeared to be underway, after months spent mobilizing and training new units, and arming them with advanced Western weaponry.
A strong indication, they said, was the Ukrainians' use in combat Thursday ofGerman Leopard tanks and American Bradley fighting vehicles.
"It appears that some of the new brigades that Ukraine has created for this counteroffensive have been committed, indicating that the counteroffensive is underway," said Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
"Ukrainian forces have made some tactical advances and suffered losses."
The United States and other Ukrainian allies trained and equipped the nine brigades destined to lead the Ukrainian counteroffensive to retake Russian-occupied territory.
Ukraine is expected to stage a multi-pronged assault along a front of hundreds of kilometers, focusing on a swath of the Zaporizhia and Donetsk regions.
Two German Leopard tanks, in a file photo. Photo: AP
Ukraine's plans focus on specific areas to try to break through Russian lines, but can be adjusted to focus on the most successful offensives, U.S. officials said.
Russia and pro-war Russian bloggers claimed that Moscow's forces had repelled Ukrainian assaults on Thursday.
Silence of Kiev
Kiev said little about the escalating fighting, neither confirming nor denying Russian claims, and Ukrainian officials have said they will not discuss the details for reasons of operational secrecy.
Russian war bloggers, who have become an important source of information from the front, claimed that Ukrainian forces had suffered heavy losses, although such claims could not be confirmed and in the past have often been exaggerated.
Two of the senior U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military operations, confirmed that advancing Ukrainian troops had suffered casualties in early fighting, but said classified assessments quantifying losses were still being drawn up.
Ukraine, as a rule, does not speak of military losses, but battlefield conditions pose a serious challenge to an attacker.
For months, Russian forces have built a network of defenses, and the flat terrain, with little coverage along much of the southern front, leaves any advancing troop force or armored vehicle vulnerable to enemy artillery.
In recent days, the Russian military and pro-war bloggers reported that Ukrainian forces had launched attacks in the eastern Donetsk region, fighting that prompted U.S. officials to say earlier this week that the counteroffensive may have begun.
Ukrainian soldiers, this Friday, near the city of Bakhmut, in the Donetstk region. Photo: REUTERS
Evidence of that conclusion mounted Thursday, but the possibility remained that the Ukrainian assaults were the prelude to an even larger offensive.
The Russian Defense Ministry said Thursday that its forces had foiled a Ukrainian attack in the Zaporizhia region near the town of Novodarivka.
A Ukrainian deputy defense minister, Hanna Malyar, said a battle was raging in the area of a larger city about 16 kilometers away in the neighboring Donetsk region, Velyka Novosilka, but it was unclear whether she was referring to the same clash.
A map published by the British Ministry of Defense identified the general area as the site of an apparent Ukrainian advance.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said forces from Ukraine's 47th Mechanized Brigade, including dozens of armored vehicles, had "made an attempt to break through Russia's defense" in that area, but that Moscow's air and ground forces had repelled the attack.
That brigade is one of the Ukrainian units that has received advanced training and equipment from the United States.
The Russian account, like most claims about what was happening on the front, could not be independently confirmed, but videos verified by The New York Times showed a Ukrainian armored vehicle near Velyka Novosilka hitting a landmine.
Ukrainian forces fire on Russian positions in the Luhansk region on Thursday. Photo: AP
Heavy fighting was reported further west, in the Zaporizhia region near the town of Orikhiv, where Malyar said "the enemy is actively on the defensive."
Russian bloggers reported that Ukraine unsuccessfully attempted an advance a few kilometers east of Orikhiv, near the village of Mala Tokmachka, and posted videos and photos showing Leopard tanks and German- and American-made combat vehicles, claiming that some of them had been destroyed.
The Times was able to confirm the location of the images and that they had been taken recently, and that some equipment had been damaged or destroyed.
Fighting at Bajmut
More heavy fighting also took place around the city of Bakhmut, the scene of the longest and bloodiest battle of the war.
Malyar told Ukrainian news stations that Bakhmut, where the Russians took the city but the Ukrainians have been advancing on its flanks, "is still the epicenter where we have gone from defense to offense," and that "we destroyed a lot of enemy manpower" there.
Britain's defense intelligence agency said in its daily assessment Thursday that "in most areas Ukraine maintains the initiative."
But Russian bloggers said the defenses were holding out, helped by sustained strikes by the Russian air force.
"After a day of continuous fighting, there is indirect information about insignificant perforations of the defenses, no progress," former Russian paramilitary commander Igor Girkin wrote on the Telegram messaging app on Thursday morning.
Western guns and tanks
Western countries have supplied billions of dollars' worth of weapons to equip Ukrainian forces with the mobility and firepower needed to go on the offensive, including modern tanks and other armored vehicles.
The allies quickly trained nine of the 12 newly formed and equipped brigades expected to take part in the fighting, along with other Ukrainian units.
But while solid so far, there is no guarantee that Western support will remain so in the long run.
The U.S. budget for military aid, for example, is expected to run out by September, and some congressional Republicans have questioned its justification.
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