Ukraine Situation Report: Suspense Builds As Counteroffensive Looms

Ukrainian shaping operations, both kinetic and psychological, have intensified as the counteroffensive feels increasingly imminent.

byStetson Payne|
Ukraine will now be allowed to use U.S.-donated weapons to attack Russian positions near Kharkiv.
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At the frontline and online, Ukrainian forces appear to be making final preparations for the long-awaited counteroffensive, with the help of Western-supplied equipment, after surviving the Russian onslaught through the winter.

Having blunted Russia’s winter offensive in the Donbas and enduring near-endless waves of air raids on targets across the country, top Ukrainian officers and spokespersons are putting the word out that the counteroffensive isn’t just ready, it’s already begun. Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said in an interview with The Guardian that preliminary operations were already underway.

“It’s a complicated process, which is not a matter of one day or a certain date or a certain hour,” Podolyak told The Guardian. “It’s an ongoing process of de-occupation, and certain processes are already happening, like destroying supply lines or blowing up depots behind the lines. The intensity is increasing, but it will take quite a long period of time.”

Oleksiy Danilov, Ukrainian Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council said in an interview with the BBC that the counteroffensive could begin “tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, or in a week,” but that Ukraine cannot afford to make a mistake in beginning its attack too soon.

Ukrainian Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the subject of numerous Russian conspiracy theories over his alleged demise, posted a blunt, short statement to Twitter and Telegram with an accompanying video.

“The time has come to take back what belongs to us.”

The video could not be more cinematic, a boisterous Ukrainian rally cry calling for the blessing of its counter-offensive and to join the armed forces. The clip features multiple Leopard 2 tanks, M777 howitzers, and M142 HIMARS in an almost fire-breathing montage.

As far as Ukrainian recruiting videos go, it’s a far cry from the much-publicized 2014 armed forces video “Each of Us”, which debuted only months after the war in the Donbas began as fears of full-scale Russian attack persisted. The 2014 video showed a nation reluctantly thrust into war with an uncertain future it was ready to defend. 

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But Saturday’s video shows a proud, vengeful, and well-armed country ready to turn the war’s tide. The video is as much a shaping operation as Ukraine’s strikes and cross-border raids. This is textbook information warfare, propaganda designed to ready Ukraine and its allies for the battle to come and to terrify Russian soldiers with the weapon systems they’ve come to fear, namely the Leopard 2 and HIMARS. 

The Ukrainian counteroffensive may not begin with sudden simultaneous attacks, but rather a crescendo to the beat of shaping operations to prepare the battlespace over several days or even weeks. Each strike deep behind the lines, each raid pulling Russian forces away from the front, and indeed each piece of psychological warfare is another step closer to Ukraine’s artillery and mechanized units starting their assaults.

Before we head into the latest updates from Ukraine, The War Zone readers can catch up on our previous rolling coverage here.

The Latest

In its most recent intelligence update, the British Ministry of Defense has confirmed the likely withdrawal of Wagner Group PMC forces from some of its positions around Bakhmut. Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin previously stated the mercenary group would hand over its positions to the Russian Ministry of Defense while Wagner reconstitutes its combat strength after months of brutal assaults on the now-ruined city. 

The update further noted it appears separatist forces of the Russian-backed, self-proclaimed, Donetsk People’s Republic have entered Bakhmut for clearance operations, while the Russian Airborne VDV’s 31st Brigade has reinforced positions on Bakhmut’s flanks. Ukraine’s counterattacks on Bakhmut’s flanks captured some 20 square kilometers, and their threat to pockets of Russian forces around the city will likely force Wagner to make a controlled retreat. 

Despite the ongoing feud between Prigozhin and the Russian Ministry of Defense, it’s reportedly likely that Wagner will be used in further offensive operations in the Donbas once it has reconstituted behind the lines. However, the Institute for the Study of War (@TheStudyofWar) reported Wagner Group swapped 106 Ukrainian prisoners of war for an unknown number of Russian POWs on May 25, possibly independently of the Russian Ministry of Defense.

Prigozhin’s separate but related feud with Igor Girkin, Russian mil-blogger and founding member of the far-right Angry Patriot’s Club, may soon come to a head as Girkin accused Prigozhin of preparing for a Wagner-led coup. Girkin specifically suggested Prigozhin may take advantage of the political chaos that could envelop Russia should the Ukrainian counteroffensive succeed.

A sizable explosion rocked the Bakhmut frontline after a reported Ukrainian strike on a Russian position, leaving a towering mushroom cloud over the countryside. Some have suggested that this was a JDAM-ER strike, which would make some sense.

Video from fighting in the city’s ruins shows just how chaotic and apocalyptic the battles were. In the below clip, two Wagner fighters can be seen trying to suppress a Ukrainian position, only to come under mortar fire and flee into cover when it’s believed they’re shot by friendly fire. 

There’s also intense footage showing a high-speed supply run by the Ukrainian 93rd Mechanized Brigade down the “Road of Life” connecting Bakhmut to friendly lines to the west. In what looks like a civilian vehicle, the Ukrainian troops flee the city through smoke, dust, and debris from artillery fire, with occupants taking and returning small arms fire as the driver speeds through the streets.

In its Saturday control of terrain assessments, ISW noted that Russian forces had made marginal gains along the Svatove-Kreminna highway

The frontline has remained largely stable in this sector northwest of Severodonetsk since last fall. Recent Russian attacks in the area reportedly targeted the Kupyansk direction, the city where Ukrainian forces crossed the Oskil River in their Kharkiv counteroffensive rout.

Fighting in the Donbas remains intense, with a combat montage from Ukraine’s 28th Mechanized Brigade showing firefights along the Donets-Donbas Canal near the village of Kurdyumivka. Troops can be seen hitting a Russian position with 84mm Carl Gustaf recoilless rifles, 30mm 2A42 autocannon fire from a BMP-2, and lofted shots from a T-72’s 125mm 2A46M main gun.

Russian forces also destroyed the dam at Donetsk Oblast’s Karlivka Reservoir. The video showed water from the reservoir rushing downstream, and the dam carried the main road connecting Ukraine’s frontline positions near Pisky on Donetsk’s outskirts.

On that note, another video shows shells falling at the Belgorod Reservoir’s dam across the border from Kharkiv, as the war increasingly comes to Russia’s border regions

Video posted to Telegram shows audible gunshots and explosions in Russia’s Belgorod Oblast, reportedly as Ukrainian-backed operations continue there. Clips appear to show fires burning near the city of Shebekino, and there was a reported Ukrainian drone strike in the village of Maiskii. 

The Liberty of Russia Legion has also released a video summary of its recent incursion into Belgorod Oblast, claiming to show the Russian garrison fleeing into abandoned homes before being targeted by artillery. 

To the northwest, there are reports of gun battles near the Ukrainian border in Bryansk Oblast in and around the village of Sushany.

Also behind Russian lines, it appears Russian air defenses may have downed another of its own aircraft near the Morozovsk Airfield in Rostov Oblast. The base housed the 559th Bomber Aviation Regiment (559 BAP) with 36 Su-34 “Fullback” bombers before the war, but it’s unclear what aircraft can be seen burning in the video.

Two Su-34s made a much-maligned low-level attack run on the Grayvoron border crossing, reportedly during the Belgorod incursions last week. Russian Telegram channel Fighter Bomber (@Fighterbomber) commented the attack run was at too low an altitude and without pre-flight preparation. You can read our initial report on the video of these strikes here.

Two sizable explosions were reported in Mariupol near the former Azovstal steel plant. The facility fell to Russian forces after a vicious siege on May 20, 2022.

The strikes are rumored to be the latest use of the British-supplied Storm Shadow cruise missiles, with another explosion reported in the occupied port city of Berdyansk. 

Video in the city of Donetsk reportedly shows the panicked aftermath of a HIMARS attack on a Russian target in the city, with soldiers and civilians seen running off the street into shelters.

Ukraine commissioned its first new Project 58155 Gyurza-M class armored gunboat since the war began, the BK-08 Bucha, named for the city ravaged in Russia’s Kyiv offensive in March 2022.

In riverine camouflage, the Bucha is armed with two 30mm autocannons, twin Stugna-P anti-tank missile launchers, and a 30mm automatic grenade launcher, formidable armament for combat on and along the lower Dnipro River

Ukraine will receive 43 AIM-9 Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missiles from the Royal Canadian Air Force, per a statement from the Canadian Department of National Defense. The missiles will likely find their way into Ukrainian-crewed NASAMS air-defense launchers, which can fire both the AIM-120 AMRAAM and the AIM-9X. That being said, we do not have a confirmation of this at this time and it's possible the AIM-9 is being integrated onto Ukraine's Soviet-designed fighter aircraft.

There’s new footage of the Slovenian “Valuk” wheeled armored personnel carriers in Ukrainian service. Slovenia sent 20 of the 6x6 vehicles as part of its aid to the Ukrainian war effort.

Ukrainian Minister of Defense Oleksiy Reznikov also showed off two of Ukraine’s “Bogun” all-terrain vehicles, the box-like vehicles seen demonstrating amphibious capabilities in a swamp. 

A pair of Russian ZALA Lancet loitering munitions damaged a Ukrainian 9K33 Osa (SA-8 “Gecko”) transporter-erector-launcher-and-radar (TELAR) after drone operators watched the vehicle move into a shed.

The first Lancet blows a hole in the roof and prompts several crew members to flee the structure before a second kamikaze drone goes through the opening. The footage cuts to a burning Osa fleeing under its own power. 

Ukrainian drones, however, remain busy in more than just attack and recon roles. Sling-load fans rejoice, as a video shows a Ukrainian DJI T30 six-rotor drone retrieving the remains of a downed Russian Orlan-10 UAV that fell in a minefield.

Elsewhere, it looks like Ukrainian drones from the 54th Mechanized Brigade managed to destroy a disabled and abandoned Russian T-90M tank near Soledar using a number of VOG grenades.

Drones helped Ukrainian artillery gunners take out Russian D-20 152mm howitzers and a “Diabazol” mobile electronic warfare system on the Dnipro River’s left bank across from Kherson.

First-person view (FPV) kamikaze drones continue to terrorize Russian troops, as a pair of clips show drones targeting Russian trucks, with the occupants and nearby soldiers trying to flee before impact. 

On a related note, there’s a new tank sporting a cope cage; well, not a new tank, actually one of the first T-72s to enter Soviet service in the 1970s. The original T-72 has been covered in explosive-reactive armor (ERA) bricks for added protection, with more of the bricks on an overhead cope cage as well. Exactly how much protection this arrangement provides — or danger to the tank's crew — remains unclear.

If you’re into scarves with modern self-propelled howitzer profiles on them, you’ll love this silk scarf CNN's Senior International Correspondent Frederik Pleitgen (@fpleitgenCNN) found in Ukraine. The purple silk scarves feature side profiles of the German-made PzH 2000 155mm self-propelled howitzer.

There’s video of Ukrainian troops riding and firing a sidecar motorcycle with a 73mm SPG-9 recoilless rifle mounted to the frame. The design harkens back to those used by Nazi German troops for reconnaissance and scouting duties in the Second World War.

In liberated areas of Ukraine, returning civilians are adjusting to life in what was a fierce battlefield only months earlier. Photos from the Kyiv Post show Anna Plichtchynska, 67, and her cow, Lana, having returned to their farm in liberated Kherson, where Anna checks the fields for mines and unexploded ordnance left behind from the fierce fighting. 

In the growing subgenre of Ukrainian wildlife on the frontlines, a video shows a small bird at a table where Ukrainian troops appear to be assembling drone-dropped munitions with plastic explosives. Before being shooed away, the bird seems rather interested in making a snack out of the explosive material, with the Ukrainian soldier joking the birds could replace drones if they figured out how to mount fuses.

That’s it for now. We’ll update this story when there’s more to report about Ukraine.

Contact the author: stetson.payne@thewarzone.com

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