Early Stages Of Ukraine’s Counteroffensive Appear To Be Underway

Ukraine’s long-promised counteroffensive seems to have kicked off with probing actions in Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia oblasts.

byHoward Altman|
Russia claims it stopped a Ukrainian counteroffensive in southern Donetsk while Ukraine says it hasn't begun.
(Photo by Muhammed Enes Yildirim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)


After months of anticipation and preparation, Ukraine’s long-promised counteroffensive finally appears to be underway.

Recent information emerging from the front lines seems to indicate intense fighting spread Sunday beyond the Bakhmut area in northeastern Donetsk Oblast, where the two sides have been bogged down in a bloody slog over small chunks of territory for nearly a year. There appears to be a fierce battle centered in southern Donetsk Oblast and other skirmishes a short distance away in Zaporizhzhia Oblast further to the west.

Adding to indications that the intensity of operations has increased, a pro-Russian separatist military commander said Ukraine used donated Leopard tanks for the first time in that area to gain territory around the city of Novodonetske. The Russian Defense Ministry (MoD) said, without offering proof, that three U.S. donated Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles were destroyed in a failed attempt at an offensive in southern Donetsk Oblast. The Pentagon was "unable to provide a battle damage assessment" about the Russian MoD's Bradley claim.

Ukraine officials, trying to maintain as much of an element of surprise as possible, are saying very little and are urging others to do likewise. But they have acknowledged that they are taking “offensive actions.”

And they are pushing back against Russian claims that it repelled a counteroffensive that Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak said "does not yet exist."

U.S. officials told The New York Times that based in part on information from U.S. military satellites, "which detected an uptick in action from Ukrainian military positions," the counteroffensive "had begun."

It is impossible to know exactly what is going on, and that is at least partially by design. But there has been an uptick in fighting and Ukrainian artillery fire after months of mostly static frontlines beyond the Bakhmut area. That's a good indication that Kyiv’s high-stakes effort to liberate remaining Russian-held territory with the weapons and training provided by the U.S. and allies is now at hand.

Aside from Ukraine’s silence on the matter and the overall fog of war, the nature of these operations adds to the challenge of ascertaining progress. Unlike the U.S.-led charge over the berms into Iraq ahead of Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom with large columns of vehicles and troops, this fight appears to be unfolding with a series of probes and feints.  Ukraine is likely attempting to find weak spots along a wide front and seize opportunities as they are presented, with the ultimate goal being the liberation of all occupied territory, including Crimea.

Recall as well that ahead of last fall’s two major Ukrainian counteroffensives, Kyiv’s superlative information operations suggested an attack in Kherson Oblast before launching the first of its two such efforts in Kharkiv Oblast. Both turned out to be successful operations.

And this all comes while self-proclaimed anti-Putin Russians are fighting inside Russia in Belgorod Oblast. The extent of their backing by Kyiv is unclear, but the ongoing incursion is likely draining some Russian resources and focus from across the hundreds of miles long frontline in Ukraine.

While any information provided by either side at this point should be considered totally questionable, the main action at the moment seems to be centered on Novodonetske, a small town surrounded by what used to be farmland in southwestern Donetsk Oblast. A successful push there could cut off Russian troops in either Vulhedar to the east or Makarivka to the west and allow Ukraine to press southward toward Mariupol. Such a move could divide Russian forces as Ukraine swings south through Zaporizhzhia Oblast toward Crimea, something we discussed in December.

“The enemy managed to cling to Novodonetskoye, but he paid a considerable price: about 10 units of destroyed armored vehicles, including one tank, were confirmed, dozens of people were killed,” Alexander Khodakovsky, deputy head of the National Guard of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), said Monday on his Telegram channel without offering proof. “In general, today the balance is in favor of the enemy, but he did not succeed in significantly delving into our territory.”

The “situation in Novodonetske and to the left towards Velikonovoselovka is difficult - the enemy, having felt our weak points, is stepping up his efforts,” said Khodakovsky. “For the first time we saw Leopards in our tactical area. As I expected yesterday - smelling the smell of success, the enemy will throw additional forces into the battle. Only in the area of Novodonetsky recorded up to 30 units of armored vehicles.”

Ukraine is also “making an attempt to break through” near Velikonovoselkovsky, about eight miles to the northwest of Novodonetske, Khodakovsky claimed.

A Russian separatist commander says Ukraine has made gains in Novodonetske. (Google Earth image)

While Khodakovsky suggested that this was more of a probing action than the full-blown counteroffensive, “in the event of a breakthrough, more significant forces could be transferred to the site.”

The Russian MoD, however, said that these attacks are part of a counteroffensive that was defeated.

“The enemy made an unsuccessful attempt at a large-scale offensive” in the south Donetsk area,” the Russian MoD claimed on its Telegram channel Monday. “Attempts by the enemy during June 4 to break through Russian forces' defense in south Donetsk direction were not successful.”

As a result of a comprehensive fire attack, the enemy suffered significant losses and by the morning of June had been pushed back to its initial positions. The [Armed Forces of Ukraine] AFU suffered losses in manpower and hardware.”

Ukraine’s 31st Mechanised Brigade, “which attacked close to Neskuchnoye, lost more than 250 servicemen, 16 tanks, 24 armored fighting vehicles, including three Bradley infantry fighting vehicles,” the Russian MoD claimed, without offering proof. “Five Ukrainian servicemen were captured.”

️Ukrainian forces “made new attempts to launch attacks in south Donetsk direction in the areas of ...Oktyabr and Novodonetskoye by engaging up to three battalion tactical groups reinforced with tanks,” the Russian MoD stated. “The enemy offensive is successfully suppressed by the active actions of the units, artillery fire and air strikes of the Vostok Group of Forces.”

In Zaporizhzhia Oblast, Russian milbloggers say Ukraine made little progress in an attempted breakthrough near the small town of Novodarivka area, just over the line from Donetsk Oblast.

“The enemy attack bogged down, there was no progress,” the Colonelcassad Telegram channel, run by Russian propagandist Boris Rozhin, claimed.

Ukraine attempted an attack through Novodarivka in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, said Russian milblogger Boris Rosin on his Colonelcassad Telegram channel. (Google Earth image)

Ukrainian officials are saying much less about what is going on.

“We are continuing the defense that we started on Feb. 24, 2022, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Monday on her Telegram channel. “A defensive operation includes everything, including counteroffensive actions. Therefore, in some areas we are moving to offensive actions.”

Contrary to what the Russian officials are saying, however, Maliar said the Bakhmut area, “remains the epicenter of hostilities. There we are moving along a fairly wide front. We are successful. We occupy the dominant heights. The enemy is on the defensive, he wants to hold his position.”

The Russians are on the defensive in the south, she added, without specifying exactly where.

“Fighting of local importance continues,” she said.

Maliar said that the Russians are “actively releasing information about a counteroffensive” because “they need to divert attention from the defeat in the Bakhmut direction.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also touted recent Ukrainian success in Bakhmut.

"I am grateful to each of our warriors, to all our defenders who gave us the news we expect [in the] Bakhmut direction - well done, warriors."

Their comments about Bakhmut were seemingly backed up by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary organization. In another screed directed at Russian military leaders, he said that Ukraine has made advances in the Bakhmut area.

While both sides offer their own viewpoints of the battlefield situation, one thing that is undeniable is the role of weather.

An improvement in the weather has dried up much of the thick mud that was an impediment to any Ukrainian attempt at a counteroffensive. But as U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters Sunday, there are other challenges.

“So the last couple of days we've seen that weather improve and, hopefully, they'll have windows of opportunity to conduct operations,” Austin told reporters traveling with him. “Now it's not just a trafficability on the ground, it's also - do you have clear skies so you can get some [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] ISR up there and help you out?”

The improved weather has allowed Ukraine to conduct probing actions to get a better sense of Russia’s long lines of defensive barriers, Austin said.

“This has enabled them to employ their reconnaissance elements and really began to look at those fortifications that the Russians have put up,” said Austin. “These fortifications extend hundreds of miles and I know enough about putting in a defense to know that, if you're defending along a front that long, then you cannot be strong everywhere. So their task is to figure out where they're not strong, where there are opportunities and identify and exploit those opportunities. That's basic Warfighting 101 and so, I don't know how well the reconnaissance has gone but I would tell you that it has provided them an opportunity to do that. So, we'll see.”

It’s one thing to know where the obstacles are and another thing entirely to overcome them, Austin said.

But the equipment and training provided to Ukraine by the U.S. and allies should give Ukraine an advantage, he said.

“What we've done is not only provide higher-end platforms like the Bradley Fighting Vehicles, infantry fighting vehicles and Strykers and some other things. We've trained them on a number of things in terms of maneuver,” Austin said. “One of those things is breach in anticipation of [encountering] complex obstacle belts be constructed by the Russians. I'm confident at the mid-level and lower-level that the troops know what to do in order to be successful in breaching those kinds of obstacles, and I just hope that they'll be able to put into play, all those skills that they've learned.”

There is a lot riding on this counteroffensive. A fairly rapid, successful operation that cuts off Crimea from Russia's so-called land bridge, or even liberates it, will increase internal and external pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin. An unsuccessful or stalled operation could imperil the tens of billions of dollars in international security assistance Kyiv relies on to continue the fight.

This is a fluid situation and something we will keep a close eye on.

Contact the author: howard@thewarzone.com