Russia’s defence ministry claimed a long-awaited Ukrainian counter-offensive had begun, pointing to intensifying attacks in eastern Ukraine over the past 48 hours.
The ministry on Friday said Ukraine had launched 26 assaults along a 60-mile stretch of the frontline near Bakhmut and the nearby town of Soledar, involving more than a thousand troops and up to 40 tanks. It conceded that Russian troops had redeployed to “more advantageous” positions in some locations but said it had stopped Ukrainian forces from making any breakthroughs.
Kyiv denied that its counter-offensive was under way, saying it was still conducting defensive operations in an area that has featured fierce fighting for several months.
“What is happening now? Enemy troops are advancing in the east in several directions. We are defending,” said Ukraine’s deputy defence minister Hanna Maliar. “Defensive measures include not only defence in the literal sense, but also counter-attacks.”
She added that Russian forces had been pushed back more than a mile from positions on the southern flank near Bakhmut, marking Kyiv’s most significant territorial gain around the city in months.
Some analysts have cautioned it may be hard to identify the start of Ukraine’s counter-offensive amid skirmishes and probing efforts by Kyiv’s forces to identify weak spots in Russian lines.
But Konrad Muzyka, an independent defence analyst and director of Rochan Consulting, which tracks the war, on Friday said he was “now almost certain” the counter-offensive was under way, citing the Bakhmut attacks.
Publicly, Ukrainian officials have been cautious when speaking about when and how the counter-offensive is to proceed.
But Russian military bloggers appeared to corroborate that Ukraine had made gains, saying Kyiv’s troops had pushed Russian forces back from a crucial road and retaken territory north of the town.
Following Russia’s loss of ground near Bakhmut in recent days, Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Russian mercenary group Wagner, said he believed a counter-offensive was now in “full swing” and complained that Moscow was not doing enough to stop it.
“Unfortunately, in some places they are successful,” Prigozhin said in an audio message published on Telegram. “All the units that have received the necessary training, weapons, equipment, tanks, everything else — they are already fully engaged.”
He later posted a video, saying of the Russian military: “There was no tactical retreat . . . what happened was outright flight.”
The fighting in and around Bakhmut — once home to more than 70,000 people but now almost destroyed — has been waged by a combination of Russian regular forces and Wagner fighters.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the BBC this week that Ukraine still needed “a little more time” to allow more of the promised Western military aid to arrive before Ukraine starts the counter-offensive.
Among the weapons for which Kyiv is still waiting are armoured vehicles, including main battle tanks. Zelenskyy said they are arriving in batches.
A person with knowledge of Ukraine’s counter-offensive preparations said the president’s message may have been intended to press western partners to rush more weapons to Kyiv, or to manage expectations about battlefield advances, or even as a feint to try to throw off Moscow.
“You could say we are shaping up [the battlefield],” said the person, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
Ukraine attacked several targets in occupied territories last week, including Crimea and oil storage facilities as well as railway lines in Russia itself.
Russian forces have tried for more than 10 months to capture Bakhmut, pouring troops and arms into what has been the longest and bloodiest battle since Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The White House last week said Russia has suffered 100,000 casualties, including more than 20,000 killed — many of them in Bakhmut — since December.
Prigozhin has blamed Russia’s defence ministry for the deaths of thousands of his soldiers and the failure to seize all of the city.
In video-recorded tirades on Telegram, he has criticised defence minister Sergei Shoigu and other military leaders for “sit[ting] like fat cats and do[ing] nothing” while his fighters are being slaughtered. He also accused Shoigu of withholding artillery shells.