Furious fighting as Ukraine attempts to retake Russian-occupied territory

Intense fighting raged across a vast swath of southeastern Ukraine for a second day on Friday as Ukrainian forces attacked occupying Russian forces in multiple locations, and US military analysts and officials warned it was too early to assess the success of Kiev’s offensive.

Both sides struggled with severe flooding caused by destruction of a large dam on the Dnieper, but to the east of it fierce fighting showed that the Ukrainian long-awaited counteroffensive According to analysts, Western and Russian officials, against the Russian invasion.

Two senior U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing sensitive military operations, confirmed that Ukrainian forces suffered casualties and equipment losses as expected at the start of hostilities, but said secret casualty quantification estimates were still being developed.

Information on Russian casualties was not available, but attackers usually suffer heavier initial casualties than entrenched defenders, and analysts warn that breaking through Russian positions will be difficult and costly.

The Russians have built massive defenses with trenches, dugouts, minefields, concrete tank barriers, and gun emplacements, while the flat terrain makes advancing troops vulnerable to Moscow’s artillery and aircraft.

Videos and photos posted by pro-war Russian bloggers and verified by The New York Times show that at least three German-made Leopard 2 tanks and eight American-made Bradley combat vehicles were recently abandoned or destroyed by Ukrainian forces.

On Friday, the Pentagon announced another round of military aid to Ukraine, this time for $2.1 billion, including air defense missiles and artillery shells.

Both belligerents gave positive-sounding but vague assessments that contained minimal details about the battle. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video message Thursday night that his forces are achieving results “step by step” but did not say what those results were, and the Ukrainian military said on Friday that “the enemy remains on the defensive.” “

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said Friday during a public address in Sochi, Russia, that Ukraine’s counter-offensive has begun, as evidenced by its use of “strategic reserves.” According to him, the Ukrainian armed forces have not made progress, but still have “offensive potential”.

Pentagon officials and military analysts are increasingly optimistic about Ukraine’s prospects for reclaiming most of the 18 percent of the country’s territory that Russia still occupies.

“It’s not something you judge from a few days of fighting,” Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at the CNA Research Institute in Arlington, Virginia, said in a Twitter post on Friday. “The offensive will continue for several weeks and probably months.”

Institute for the Study of War, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. wrote Thursday night that Ukraine had not yet put into action all the newly trained and equipped units that it had prepared for the offensive, and was fighting in the Zaporozhye region against Russian units, which were much stronger than in other parts of the front.

The Ukrainians have attacked several locations in Zaporozhye and the adjacent Donetsk region looking for weak spots to exploit, and they are expected to deploy troops and equipment to concentrate on those vulnerabilities.

Officials on both sides report heavy fighting near the town of Orikhov in the south of the Zaporozhye region. Analysts have long expected a major Ukrainian strike there, moving south towards the city of Melitopol and the Sea of ​​Azov in an attempt to cut in two the lands captured by Russia.

In Zaporozhye, Moscow “designed one of the largest defense systems in Europe since World War II,” according to a report released Friday by analysts at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. The report, based on satellite data, says that the defenses there are over six miles deep, more than twice as deep as in other regions.

Since Thursday, Russian pro-military bloggers and the Russian military have reported that Ukraine has unsuccessfully attempted to advance a few miles east of Orekhov, near the village of Malaya Tokmachka.

Images released by the Ukrainian brigade and verified by The Times show Ukrainian troops on foot in Lobkove, a community west of Orekhov.

Ukraine also launched strikes from the northeast, in the Donetsk region, in the area of ​​Bolshaya Novoselka and Bakhmut, which fell last month from Russian troops after the longest and bloodiest battle of the war. Ukrainian forces report strengthening positions on the flanks of the city.

This Ukrainian counteroffensive is expected to be one of the largest military operations in Europe since World War II, involving tens of thousands of soldiers and hundreds of tanks, armored vehicles and howitzers fighting in and around agricultural fields, towns and villages.

Each side ran out of ammo from time to time: Ukraine relied on its Western patrons, and Russia bought attack drones from Iran. The Biden administration on Friday released newly declassified details of a drone plant Russia is building with Iranian help, saying it could be operational by next year.

Farther west, in the Kherson region, the two banks are separated by the Dnieper River, now much wider and surrounded by devastation after the destruction of the Kakhovka dam on Tuesday. This would make it much more difficult for the Ukrainians to move across the river, but Ukrainian officials say such an assault was not part of their plans, and the breach of the dam won’t have any effect during the course of hostilities.

A senior Biden administration official said U.S. spy satellites detected an explosion in Kakhovka dam shortly before it collapsed, but American analysts still don’t know what or who caused it.

Separately, the Norwegian Seismic Monitoring Foundation informed that his equipment in Romania recorded two explosions from the side of the dam. It was weaker at 2:35 a.m. Tuesday and then stronger, with a movement equivalent to a magnitude 1 to 2 earthquake at 2:54 a.m., around the time the dam broke, the group said.

Experts say the dam held by Russian troops was probably destroyed deliberate explosion inside a massive structure. They say an explosion outside, such as a missile strike, or structural failure caused by earlier war damage and flooding overhead were possible causes, but far less likely.

The Ukrainian government says the only likely scenario is that the Russians, who controlled the dam, blew it up. His security on Friday released an audio clip from what he said was an intercepted phone call in which a man he identified as a Russian soldier said that “this is our sabotage group” took him out and added that the damage was “greater than they planned.” The validity of the record could not be established.

Russian officials blame Ukraine, offering various scenarios but no evidence. Some commentators on Russian state television cheered the collapse of the dam.

The flooding forced thousands of people to flee their homes on both banks of the Dnieper, washed away entire buildings and clogged the river with debris and toxins. On the Russian-held side, officials said eight people were killed. On the Ukrainian side, five dead and 13 missing were reported.

Ukrainian officials said on Friday that Russian troops shelled evacuation and rescue areas, killing two people.

Flood waters receded in the city of Kherson, but not downstream, near the place where the river flows into the Black Sea. Debris from the flood littered the distant seashores; Residents of Odessa, more than 70 miles from the mouth of the Dnieper, reported seeing rooftops and dead animals floating nearby.

Aid groups and Ukrainian officials have warned that the flooding has washed away many of the landmines, sending them seaward, and that other debris could collide with floating naval mines and explode. Land mines, some of which have exploded, pose a deadly hazard to people on or near the water.

Natalia Gumenyuk, a spokeswoman for Ukraine’s Southern Military Command, said even seemingly harmless-looking materials washed ashore as far as Odessa could contain explosive devices.

Mark Santora, Paul Sonn, Christian Tribert, Haley Willis, Helen Cooper, Julian E. Barnes, Christoph Kettle And Gabriela Sa Pessoa made a report.