Sun, 03 Dec 2023

For weeks now, along the nearly 1,000-kilometer Ukrainian front line that stretches from the northeastern city of Kharkiv south to Donetsk and then west to the mouth of the Dnieper River, there's been a noticeable uptick in clashes, skirmishes, and full-fledged combat between Ukrainian and Russian forces.

Ukrainian officials, and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy himself, have signaled that a major counteroffensive is imminent, an operation that could turn out to be pivotal for the course of the entire invasion, now in its 15th month.

Overnight on June 5, Russia's Defense Ministry said Ukraine had launched a 'large-scale offensive' south of Donetsk, along the administrative border between the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhya regions, and claimed Russian forces had thwarted the effort.

Ukraine cautioned that Russia was prone to deception and exaggeration. But a Ukrainian deputy defense minister said later the same day that 'in some areas we are moving to offensive actions.'

So, has Ukraine's counteroffensive finally gotten under way?


'There is no perfect time to launch the Ukrainian offensive, but there will be a time that is optimum for Ukrainian force preparations and where they are most able to exploit Russian weaknesses,' Mick Ryan, a retired Australian Army general, said in a post on Twitter on June 4. 'That time is close. H-Hour approaches.'

So What Do We Know?

Like all official statements, the announcement by the Russian Defense Ministry should be taken with a major grain of salt or a hefty pinch.

Ukraine on June 4 had launched a 'large-scale offensive' in five places south of Donetsk, involving 'six mechanized and two tank battalions,' the Russian ministry said in a post published on Telegram just after midnight.

In a later update, the ministry claimed 250 Ukrainian troops from Ukraine's 31st Mechanized Brigade had been killed near the village of Neskuchne, along with more than three dozen tanks and armored personnel carriers, including U.S.-supplied Bradley vehicles.

'The enemy did not achieve his tasks. He had no success,' the ministry said.

On its own, it would be easy to file that away under the rubric: 'Very Unconfirmed Statements Made By The Russian Defense Ministry.'

Ukrainian soldiers fire a cannon near Bakhmut, an eastern city where fierce battles against Russian forces have been taking place, in the Donetsk region on May 12.

There is no easy way to independently verify battlefield reports, even under the best of circumstances. Ukraine has imposed restrictions for Ukrainian and foreign reporters accessing the front lines. The Russian reporters and bloggers who travel with Russian units frequently publish reports of questionable veracity.

But overnight, June 4 into June 5, Russian military bloggers -- some of whom are exceedingly well plugged into military and intelligence circles -- published a stream of reports pointing to intensifying localized battles near Vuhledar, the Vremevskiy ledge, Soledar, Velyka Novosilka, and other possible locations.

'A second wave of attacks...Soledar itself is under heavy fire,' Semyon Pegov, a Russian blogger notorious for often propagandistic claims, said in a post early on June 5. 'There is a tough fight going on.'

'The enemy is also conducting offensive operations in the Artyomovsk area,' Aleksandr Kots, a reporter with the Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid newspaper, said on June 5. 'Under artillery fire: Soledar north of the city. Fighting is also taking place to the southwest of Bakhmut.'

Artyomovsk is the Soviet-era name for Bakhmut.

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'For 12 hours, fighting has continued near Velyka Novosilka. The enemy continues to be active in the direction of Novodonetske. In the [Vuhledar] direction, both sides are actively working their artillery,' another blogger, Boris Rozhin, wrote on June 5.

Aleksandr Khodakovsky, who commands a notorious unit of Russian-backed forces in the Donetsk region, said early on June 5 that 30 Ukrainian armored vehicles were seen moving near Novodonetske and Vuhledar.

'As a result, a strike group that is currently operating in Novodonetske entered the line of attack almost unnoticed,' he wrote on Telegram. 'Having...crushed any communications, the enemy was able to put us in a difficult position. The situation is developing.'

Khodakovsky later reported that Leopard tanks were seen near Velyka Novosilka. If true, it would be the first time that the formidable German-made tanks were being employed by Ukrainian forces.

Rybar, a Telegram channel reportedly run by a former Defense Ministry press officer, said that as of the afternoon of June 5, Ukrainian troops were battling Russian forces near the Vremyevsky ledge and Novodaryivka, including units from the 23rd and 31st Mechanized Brigades.

Ukrainian soldiers ride in a military vehicle near the Ukraine-Russia border in the town of Vovchansk, Kharkiv region, on June 5.

The channel also reported a convoy of 30 Ukrainian armed vehicles, reportedly from the 37th Naval Infantry Brigade, taking a village in the Novodonetske district.

'Now the fighting continues under heavy artillery fire,' it said. 'At the moment, about half of the village is under the control of the Ukrainian armed forces.'

What Are The Ukrainians Saying?

Not surprisingly, they're not saying much.

However, in a Telegram post released on the evening of June 5, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar signaled that some 'offensive actions' were under way and singled out Bakhmut.

'We are continuing the defense that we started on February 24, 2022,' she said, referring to the day Russia launched its large-scale invasion of Ukraine. 'A defensive operation includes everything, including counteroffensive actions. Therefore, in some areas we are moving to offensive actions.'

'In particular, the Bakhmut direction remains the epicenter of hostilities. There we are moving along a fairly wide front. We occupy the dominant heights,' she wrote. 'We are successful.'

SEE ALSO: Kyiv Using 'Ukrainian Storks' For Reconnaissance Over Bakhmut

Ukraine has taken pains, and struggled at times, to control the information narrative surrounding the entire invasion.

Over the winter months, Ukraine and Russia slogged through a cold stalemate, with Russian forces making several efforts to seize the initiative, probing and pushing Ukraine lines.

One push near Vuhledar, which is south of Donetsk, in January and February resulted in disaster for several regular Russian units.

More recently, Russia had declared victory in Bakhmut, a Donetsk region city of questionable strategic value that was the focus of nearly 10 months of brutal urban warfare.

The city has been obliterated. Ukraine has not conceded its loss to the Russians.

Even before Bakhmut, Ukrainian officials were signaling that a major push was forthcoming.

Western analysts say it could be Kyiv's last real attempt to reclaim momentum on the battlefield and prove to its backers in Washington, Brussels, Berlin, and elsewhere that now it not the time for peace negotiations.

SEE ALSO: Along Ukraine's Border, Fear, Suspicion, Exhaustion Seep Into A Russian Region

NATO, and even some non-NATO members, have been training Ukrainian forces in Western-style command and maneuver tactics. These are tactics not used by Ukraine's military command, whose senior leadership traditionally subscribe to Soviet-legacy doctrines and practices.

At least nine brigades -- typically consisting of between 3,000 and 5,000 troops -- have been trained by NATO, and Ukraine itself has reorganized the military to create at least four other new brigades as well. All are expected to be the vanguard of any major offensive operation.

Judging by the initial unverified reports, only a small number of Ukrainian units were engaged in active fighting as of June 5.

Well before the recent uptick in fighting, going back to the spring of 2022, Ukraine began conducting a low-level shadow war across the border inside Russia, using drones, artillery -- helicopters, in one instance -- to target sites like fuel depots and pipelines.

Ukrainian officials have winkingly denied responsibility for the cross-border attacks, claiming to have no knowledge of them, while also in some cases endorsing them.

Incursions involving armed groups have also increased drastically since the winter, and last month, a group of Ukrainian-aligned, anti-Russian fighters held off Russian forces in the Belgorod border region for nearly two days -- the largest such incursion to date.

Members of the Russian Volunteer Corps pose for a picture atop an armored vehicle at the Graivoron border crossing in Kozinka, Belgorod region, Russia, on May 23.

On June 4, another group of Ukrainian-aligned fighters said they had captured several Russian soldiers and turned them over to Kyiv, as the regional governor acknowledged yet more fighting in the border region.

On May 27, Ukraine's military published a video narrated by the country's top military officer, General Valery Zaluzhniy, in which he intoned: 'It's time to take back what is ours.'

And in an interview with The Wall Street Journal published on June 3, Zelenskiy said Ukraine was finally ready to launch the counteroffensive. 'We strongly believe that we will succeed,' he said.

Still, on June 4, Ukraine's defense minister published a video, in English, exhorting the general public to keep quiet about Ukrainian operations and the coming counteroffensive.

'The beginning will not be announced,' the video said.

Is It Just Propaganda or 'Maskirovka'?

Given that 'information operations' or 'maskirovka' is an important historical weapon in Russian military operations, it's a good question to ask: Are the Russians seeking to throw off Ukrainian commanders and the wider public as to what is happening?

Maskirovka refers to any sort of deception, feint, or denial aimed at fooling an enemy in some way.

The strategic communications unit of Ukraine's armed forces warned on June 5 that Russian social networks and bloggers were preparing to 'intensify the spread of unreliable information about the combat order to demoralize Ukrainians and mislead the community (including their own population).'

Ukraine Territorial Control (Updated Weekdays)

'Russian propagandists will spread false information about the counteroffensive, its directions, and the losses of the Ukrainian Army. Even if there is no counterattack,' the unit said.

It's in Ukraine's interest to both downplay any Russian statements and to minimize independent information about battlefield movements: 'operational security' or 'op-sec.' And it's in Russia's interest to both exaggerate its claims, not only to try and 'demoralize' Ukrainians, but also to trumpet victories, which have been far and few between.

If It's Not THE Counteroffensive, What Is It?

The size and number of Ukrainian units reported in active combat as of June 5 appears to be relatively small: a handful of brigades, at most.

That would suggest these events do not constitute the actual counteroffensive that everyone has been anticipating.

Along with the drone attacks and the cross-border raids, it may suggest what military experts call 'shaping' operations: an effort to probe Russian lines, to try and find weak points, or to force Russian commanders to move units from one location to another.

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036

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