In a very active day on different fronts, Ukraine reported on Monday “offensive actions” and an “advance” near the devastated city of Bakhmut., an attack that Russia claimed to have repelled. Moscow, for its part, said the Ukrainian army attacked positions in Donetsk, where it would have suffered a heavy setback. And kyiv continued to attack Russian territory in Belgorod.
According to kyiv, the city of bakhmut –in the geographical center of the long war front- remains the “epicenter of hostilities”. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Ganna Maliar said her troops were “advancing on a fairly wide front” near the city. “We are achieving successes and occupying the commanding heights. The enemy is on the defensive,” he declared. The Ukrainian advance was confirmed by the Russian paramilitary chief, Yevgeni Prigozhin. “Part of the town of Berkhivka was lost,” he said, calling the setback a “shame.”
The war in Donetsk
According to Deputy Minister Maliar, “minor fighting” is taking place in the southeast, where Russian forces are “on the defensive.” The Russian Defense Ministry’s statements claimed, instead, to have thwarted “a large-scale offensive” in five sectors of that front “in the southern direction of the Donetsk region.”, adding that the Ukrainian troops had suffered heavy losses near Novodarivka, Zaporizhia and Vugledar. “The enemy did not achieve his goal,” the Russian ministry congratulated itself, showing images of 16 Ukrainian armored vehicles destroyed by heavy artillery causing 300 deaths.
Much of Donetsk has been under the control of pro-Russian separatists since 2014 and is one of four Ukrainian territories that Russia annexed last September, along with Lugansk, Zaporizhia and Kherson.
Ukrainian attacks on Russia
Inside the Russian side of the border, Moscow claimed to have repelled an incursion by Ukrainian fighters on Sunday in the town of Novaya Tavolzhanka in the Belgorod region. In addition, Ukraine has been attacking the area strongly with artillery for days. And clashes between the Russian military and pro-Ukrainian Russian fighters have been reported. These assaults left several dead. On Sunday, one of these groups took prisoners and said they will be handed over to kyiv. In a released video you can see images of a dozen detained soldiers of the Russian official army, two of them wounded. It is the first time that Russian citizens have been captured on Russian territory.
These border fighting have forced thousands of Russian civilians to flee to the eponymous regional capital Belgorod. “We are in a terrible state. But we hold on, we try to be strong because we have children,” said Irina Burlakova, a displaced person who went to seek humanitarian aid. This 30-year-old woman fled Shebekino with her husband and son. They lived in the center of the city, hit by heavy artillery and drone fire that injured one person and damaged energy infrastructure. Ukraine insists that it is not behind these attacks.
Ukrainian attacks on Belgorod could have two purposes: a propaganda use and at the same time, threatening a massive incursion on that side –the supposed counteroffensive- so that the Russians eat the curve and deconcentrate part of the troops accumulated in the central region of the front. This would weaken the place where Ukraine would really try to pierce the Russian defenses — in the center of the front — already very well equipped defensively. That is why it is possible that the fiercest confrontations of this war are just beginning and will continue for years. Ukrainian propaganda says that as a result of these operations, their adversaries mobilized a battalion of paratroopers to Belgorod. Russian propaganda says that they did not move a single bishop.
For when the counteroffensive?
Ukrainian authorities are silent on the contours of the counteroffensive, but Russian military experts think those troops are multiplying attacks on Russian lines to discover their flaws before launching it. This was what happened in September 2022, when the Kiev army secretly prepared an assault with which they reconquered almost the entire Kharkov region in the northeast. The Ukrainian government has been preparing a major counteroffensive for months, but kyiv carries out a political logic of silence. Defense Minister of Ukraine Oleksi Reznikov stated that “the plans love silence. There will be no announcement of the start” of the counteroffensive. And she accompanied his statements with a video of soldiers making the sign of silence with a finger on their lips.
Despite some unofficial information in the international press, It is not clear that the announced Ukrainian counteroffensive with the attacks in Donestk has started. And it is difficult for this to be imminent: the tanks and infantry would need to have very good air support, something Ukraine does not have for now. In fact, if the videos shown by Russia with destroyed Ukrainian tanks are real, it would be proving on the ground that without air support, they cannot advance on the Russians to recover ground. It would be throwing the tank battalions into a Pyrrhic, almost suicidal battle. Nothing indicates that Ukraine can count on a significant air force in the short term.
The attacks these days – in a context where Ukrainian propaganda makes explicit gestures of silence – are surely tests that, if they go well, it will be said that the counteroffensive has begun. And otherwise, the speech will be that it has not yet arrived. In the meantime, the Ukrainian president will continue to publicly and strongly press the West to provide him with more tanks and planes.