Ukraine Tries to Seize Momentum With Claims of Counteroffensive

KYIV, Ukraine – A month into a war that began with widespread expectations of a swift Russian defeat, the Ukrainian military is launching a counter-offensive that has changed the central dynamics of the fighting: the question is no longer how far Russian forces have advanced, but or the Ukrainians are pushing them back now.

Ukraine has blown up parked Russian helicopters in the south and claimed to have destroyed a naval vessel in the Sea of ​​Azov on Thursday. His troops hit a Russian supply convoy in the northeast.

Western and Ukrainian officials have also claimed progress has been made in the fierce fighting around the capital Kiev.

The claimed gains on territory are difficult to quantify or verify. In at least one pivotal battle in a Kiev suburb, where Russian forces were closest to the capital, brutal street fighting continued on Thursday and it was not clear whether Ukraine had regained ground.

But even this obscured picture of Ukraine’s progress is useful for the country’s message to its citizens and to the world – that it is going to battle an enemy with superior numbers and weapons, not just crouching down to defend. And it underscores the flawed planning and execution that the Russian armed forces have faced from the start, including shortages of supplies and demoralizing conditions for its soldiers. Those missteps have allowed Ukraine to unexpectedly go on the offensive.

By preventing Russian troops from taking Irpin, a suburban town about 20 kilometers from the center of Kiev, Ukraine demonstrated that its strategy of sending small units from the capital to attack the Russians, often in ambushes, was successful. has had at the least for now.

Western governments have released cautiously optimistic assessments of the counteroffensive. In an intelligence report released on Wednesday, the British Ministry of Defense said Ukraine’s actions “increased pressure on Russians east of Kiev” and that Ukrainian soldiers “probably recaptured Makariv” and another small town immediately north of Kiev. the capital.

While noting the obscure state of the battle, the report raised what it called a “realistic possibility” that the Ukrainian counter-offensive could succeed in encircling and cutting off the Russian invasion force’s supply lines in the area, in what would be a clear tactical victory for Ukraine. At the very least, it said, “Ukraine’s successful counter-attacks will disrupt the ability of Russian forces to reorganize and resume their own offensive against Kiev.”

In the Kiev counter-offensive, the Ukrainian military ordered lower commanders to devise strategies to retaliate in ways appropriate to their local areas. In many cases, this meant sending small units of infantry on reconnaissance missions to find and attack Russian troops that had spread to villages near Kiev, a soldier on one of those missions over the weekend said.

In the fighting northwest of the capital, time is likely on Ukraine’s side, analysts say. Russian columns are running out of fuel and ammunition, intercepted radio transmissions suggest. Soldiers have been sleeping in vehicles in freezing weather for a month.

And military analysts see this axis of the Russian advance, although closest to the center of Kiev, as suffering the most from logistical failures and battle setbacks.

But without knowing which army is actually advancing into the disputed towns and villages, the war here is in a state of uncertainty, said Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia.

More broadly, time across the country is also on Ukraine’s side to at least bring the initial Russian invasion force to a halt. But this can shift. An initial surge in patriotism could wane as the grim realities of war set in or as civilians begin to understand Ukraine’s military losses, about which little is known.

“Our understanding of where we are now in this war is very incomplete, and we have to be honest about this,” said Mr Kofman. “If you don’t know who’s controlling what, you don’t know who’s got the momentum on the ground.”

On Thursday, intense fighting had caused so many fires in towns around Kiev that the city was shrouded in an eerie, white smoke haze. But signs of real progress on the ground were elusive. Ukrainian troops have been unable to demonstrate that they control villages or towns previously held by the Russian army.

“They are fighting day and night and everything is on fire,” said Olha, 33, a saleswoman who escaped from Irpin on Wednesday night and was not comfortable giving her full name. She was interviewed at an aid station for displaced civilians where a continuous, cacophonous rumble of explosions could be heard from nearby fighting.

Earlier on Wednesday, Kiev mayor Vitaly Klitschko told a news conference that Ukrainian forces had in fact pushed back Russian troops and that “almost all of Irpin is in Ukrainian hands”. Other Ukrainian and Western officials have also made more optimistic statements than could be verified by witnesses.

Irpin’s deputy police chief, Oleksandr Bogai, said Russian soldiers were still in the city, occupying several districts and fighting Ukrainian forces. That is essentially the same situation that lasted almost the entire month of the war. “There are huge explosions and there is a lot of smoke,” he says by phone. “Citizens hide in basements. I don’t know exactly what’s going on.”

In Makariv, another battlefield west of Kiev that Ukrainian officials claimed to have recaptured this week, fighting was also ongoing, mayor Vadym Tokar said in a telephone interview.

“I don’t understand where this nonsense is coming from,” he said of reports that his city had been liberated. “It’s not true. We have shelling and right now Russian tanks are shooting into the city.”

To be sure, some Western and Ukrainian official accounts have also offered more measured ratings. The head of Kiev’s regional military administration, Oleksandr Pavliuk, said on Thursday that the counter-offensive had succeeded in improving “positions” in Irpin and Makariv, but was out of control.

Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, announced the counter-offensive on March 16 after it became apparent that Russian armored columns had become stranded, plagued by logistical and communication problems and suffered losses in ambushes.

Russian forces have continued to make progress in eastern Ukraine, where the army on Thursday claimed to have captured Izyum, a provincial town in the Kharkiv region that has been under attack for weeks. Ukraine denied that it had been captured. Neither account could be independently confirmed.

In the fighting around Kiev, civilians evacuating from the battle zone painted a picture not so much of liberated cities, but of chaotic, deadly violence.

Vladimir, 66, a retired furniture factory worker who refused to give his last name, left Irpin Thursday morning after his house burned down overnight.

“No one is putting out the fires,” he said. “My neighbor’s house burned down and I saw sparks on my roof and then my house started to burn.”

Lacking water to fight the fire, he could only watch. “We must never surrender,” he said. “We will never live among the Russians again.”

There were also few signs that the Ukrainian government had even instituted rudimentary civilian services in the cities it is trying to recapture.

A woman who also offered only her first name, Elena, arrived in tears at an aid station on the evacuation route from Irpin, saying neighbors had helped her bury her adult son in her backyard because no authorities picked up the dead.

“I just hope his grave isn’t destroyed” during the artillery shelling, she said. “The men dug a grave in the garden among the roses and placed stones around it and a cross over it.”

Yet the counter-offensive has in one sign penetrated areas previously controlled by Russian forces, a Ukrainian unit that collects military dead from the battlefield has now also found the bodies of Russian soldiers in the cities around Kiev, according to Serhiy Lysenko, the unit leader of the unit. commander.

He declined to say which cities he had worked in. For now, he said in a telephone interview, they are leaving the Russian dead in place and don’t want to take any extra risk to get them back.

Mr Kofman of the CNA research institute said: “It is clear that Russia cannot achieve its initial political objectives in this war now.” He said Russia must shift its targets or change its military strategy “if it is to continue this war on a large scale beyond the coming weeks.”

Maria Varenikova contributed from Kiev, Ukraine.

SOURCE – www.nytimes.com

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