As Russian lines are probed, Ukraine’s counteroffensive takes shape

On South, Ukrainian soldiers fighting in unforgiving terrain, on flat farmland with little cover for troops trying to push forward.

sixty miles they attack through the plains in a coal-mining region littered with slag heaps, advancing towards a strategic rail junction.

Further east they targeting Russian positions in the hills outside Bakhmut, a city in ruins that fell to Russian forces last month after the longest and bloodiest battle of the war. Ukrainian forces have advanced about a mile in parts of the front line, the military said on Saturday.

In fierce fighting along the front lines last week, Ukraine’s drive to regain lost territories is taking shape in a major turning point in the war. With every clash, Ukraine is trying to show that it can attack anywhere, while trying to force Russia to defend itself everywhere.

After several days of silence on the extent of the fighting, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy confirmed convincingly on Saturday that the long-awaited counter-offensive had begun.

“In Ukraine, counter-offensive and defensive actions are being carried out,” he said at a press conference in Kyiv with visiting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “At what stage, I will not disclose in detail.”

The multilateral landing, concentrated along the front in the south and east, is a test run of the new Ukrainian arsenal of Western tanks and armored vehicles, as well as tens of thousands of newly mobilized soldiers who have been training in Europe for months in preparation for hostilities. . Kyiv, which, as expected, is suffering losses in the early stages, will need to show significant progress in its counteroffensive in order to keep the flow of money and weapons from the West.

Over the past 24 hours, Ukrainian forces hit four Russian command posts, six areas of concentration of personnel, weapons and military equipment, three ammunition depots and five enemy artillery installations in firing positions with rocket and artillery shelling, the military said. These claims cannot be independently verified.

The flurry of initial attacks, orchestrated by the Ukrainian army under the cloak of secrecy, are designed to expose weaknesses and tempt Russia to reveal its defensive strategies too early, before the bulk of Ukraine’s new forces are committed to combat. In the expanse of farmland, the two armies maneuver and hide their hundreds of tanks, armored vehicles and howitzers in tiny villages and thickets of trees so that the other side does not guess where their forces are concentrated.

Now in full swing, Ukraine’s counter-offensive is expected to be one of the largest military operations in Europe since World War II.

Kiev has already deployed fighters from the 47th Mechanized Brigade, one of nine units formed in October specifically to retake occupied lands and armed with M16 rifles instead of the Kalashnikovs most Ukrainian soldiers use. On dusty country roads, American Humvees drive through potholes, Ukrainian flags fluttering from antennas.

The Ukrainian army has brought forward German Leopard 2 tanks and American Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, updating its aging fleet of Soviet heritage armored vehicles. In total, Ukraine received hundreds of Western tanks, armored vehicles and machines for breaking through minefields..

His forces are up against a formidable line of defense built by the Russians over the course of several months, with thick layers of mines, trenches and concrete tank barriers. In intense fighting, some of the new Western weapons were abandoned or destroyed, and Russian propaganda videos show them abandoned among mud-crusted fields riddled with artillery craters.

The Ukrainian government has largely remained silent on its first steps, citing the need to maintain the element of surprise. The Russian government triumphantly claimed to have repelled the attacks, but provided little evidence.

American officials, who have said in recent days that a counteroffensive appears to have begun, said it was too early to make general assessments, although they were generally optimistic about the prospects for a Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Each location is of strategic importance for Kyiv.

In recent days, fighting has been going on both in the Zaporozhye region near the agricultural town of Orikhov, and east of the Donetsk region, in the area of ​​Bolshaya Novoselka, a once sleepy rural town crossed by country roads surrounded by coal mines and sunflower fields.

An offensive from either of these two areas in the south, long considered the focus of any Ukrainian counter-offensive, could allow Ukrainian forces to drive a wedge into Russian-occupied territory, cutting rail and road links and dividing it into two zones. Such successes would give them a chance to cut Russia’s so-called land bridge connecting its territory with the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Moscow in 2014, jeopardizing supply lines.

Ukrainian officials also said they were advancing along the outskirts of the eastern city of Bakhmut, which is now a desert of burnt and destroyed buildings and almost completely deserted. The fighting took place in a hilly area to the west of the city in the area of ​​the irrigation and drinking water canal, the Donets-Donbass canal.

Since Russia has made capturing the ruins a reward in the war, it must now defend them or risk failure. By attacking there, Ukraine can force Russia to divert resources from the defense of the south.

In this initial phase, Ukrainian forces are essentially probing Russian positions to determine the weakest points. They will then try to turn around and focus on the attacks that have the most potential for success.

Any fighting is expected to be bloody and brutal, with heavy casualties on the Ukrainian side.

An attack on flat farmland in the Zaporozhye region cuts into a dense Russian defense line. During a recent tour of the region, the villages were found to be largely abandoned. At one point, the only people were two boys trampling in a muddy puddle, who then hurried out of the way as a military truck rumbled past.

This area is one of the shortest routes to dividing Russian-held territory into two sectors, but also one of the most heavily fortified.

Commercial satellite imagery shows several lines of Russian defense. Russia has spent months planting minefields, digging bunkers and putting up concrete tank barriers.

U.S. officials, on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the Ukrainians suffered casualties in the recent battle, as did the Russians, but did not count casualties. At least three German-made Leopard 2 tanks and eight American-made Bradley combat vehicles were recently abandoned or destroyed by Ukrainian forces, according to videos and photos posted by pro-war Russian bloggers and confirmed by The New York Times.

At this stage, it remains unclear where Ukraine will strike its main blow, Mikhail Samus, deputy director of the Center for Army Research, Conversion and Disarmament in Kyiv, said in a telephone interview. According to him, the attacks are currently aimed primarily at forcing Russia to reveal its positions and strategies.

When Ukrainian troops attack, Russian troops move in reinforcements and respond with artillery fire, exposing their positions and defensive strategies. They include electronic jamming systems, showing how this equipment will be used in combat.

The Ukrainian military is using what it has learned from these attacks to target Russian artillery positions, he said. Samus softens the defenses for the real breakthrough battle that will take place later. A larger battle “is yet to come, and exactly where it will be, we do not yet know.”

The main Russian defensive tactic is to deploy a thin first line to detect an attack as it is captured, military analysts say. Behind this line are minefields, and then more trenches. Farther away are reinforcements who rush forward to counterattack the attacking troops trying to cross the minefields.

While the fighting can go on for months, both sides quickly forge their own narrative of success with vague words and a few details.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu said that the forces of the 47th Mechanized Brigade of Ukraine were trying to break through in the Velika Novoselka area. According to him, the attack was repelled.

Other claims have followed a similar pattern: unsubstantiated claims that Ukrainian attacks have been beaten back, and President Vladimir V. Putin has even claimed that a counteroffensive has so far failed. According to the American think tank Institute for the Study of War, Russia’s seemingly coordinated statements about the attacks indicated that the state was preparing for how the counteroffensive would be portrayed.

The group said that Ukraine had attacked in three areas but had only achieved “different results” and that seesaw combat was to be expected as assault teams advance and fight back.

Ukraine has been even more circumspect, largely silent on any details of the fighting. And Ukraine has closed media access to the front in the Zaporozhye region.

Maria Varenikova provided a report from Zaporozhye, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.