Ukraine’s Stepped-Up Assault Grinds Forward, but Scale Is Unclear

Battles raged in southern Ukraine on Thursday, as Kyiv’s stepped-up offensive against the Russian occupation made small gains, according to Russian, Ukrainian and Western analysts and officials, but the scope of the assaults and their toll remained unclear.

A day after U.S. officials said the main thrust of Ukraine’s counteroffensive appeared to have begun, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said, “We confirm that hostilities have intensified and in a significant way.”

But there was minimal, and sometimes contradictory, information about how many troops and armored vehicles Ukraine had committed so far to its attempt to punch holes through Russia’s daunting defensive network. Crucially, it was also unclear what kind of losses either side was suffering, in soldiers and weaponry.

What is clear is that Ukraine has significantly ratcheted up its seven-week-old counteroffensive, along two southward thrusts apparently aimed at cities in the Zaporizhzhia region: Melitopol, near the Sea of Azov, and Berdiansk, to the east, on the Azov coast. In both cases, the Ukrainians have advanced only a few miles so far and have dozens of miles to go.

In the short run, success would mean getting behind Russia’s defenses, where its forces would be far more vulnerable, and taking major towns farther south. Longer term, it would mean taking back Melitopol, a major transportation hub, or Berdiansk, an important port, or both — effectively cutting the Russian-occupied territory in half, complicating Moscow’s strategy and logistics.

A destroyed Russian tank this month in the Zaporizhzhia region.Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

The Ukrainian military said in a statement that its forces “continue to conduct an offensive operation in Melitopol and Berdiansk directions,” and that Russia had launched blistering artillery and aerial bombardments across southern Ukraine to repel the assault. Russian forces are focusing their “main efforts on preventing the further advance of Ukrainian troops,” it said.

American officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said on Wednesday that the main part of Ukraine’s counteroffensive was underway, and that most of the units trained and equipped by the West for that purpose had been committed. But Russian officials described the assaults as considerably smaller, though aggressive and intense, and on Thursday, Ukrainian officials, also given anonymity, said that most of their reserve units were not yet in use.

One U.S. military official appeared to step back a bit from the earlier claim, saying on Thursday, “It remains to be seen what they’ll truly commit, when they’ll commit it and where.”

The United States and other Western allies have trained more than 63,000 Ukrainian troops in preparation for the counteroffensive and have provided thousands of armored vehicles, figures that continue to rise.

In the past, Mr. Putin had often gone weeks without publicly discussing battlefield events, but he has done so repeatedly in the weeks since a failed mutiny by the Wagner private military group, telegraphing that he is control.

In St. Petersburg, Russia, on Thursday, he took a break from meetings with African leaders to speak to Russian state television about what he insisted was a failing Ukrainian counteroffensive. He claimed, without offering evidence, that the Ukrainians had suffered heavy casualties and losses of armored vehicles — a frequent and often inflated Russian assertion.

“Today they tried to pick up abandoned wrecked equipment, the wounded and the bodies of the dead,” Mr. Putin said. “But they were also dispersed.”

This photograph provided by Russian state media shows President Vladimir V. Putin speaking on Thursday during the Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg.Credit…Alexander Deminchuk/Tass

Ukraine, maintaining operational secrecy, has not acknowledged that the offensive has entered a new phase, and it has repeatedly cautioned that progress will be slow and difficult. President Volodomyr Zelensky, in his late-night address on Wednesday, said only that there were “very good results today.”

The Institute for the Study of War, based in Washington, said in an analysis that Ukraine still had many units in reserve and that if American officials were correct that the main Ukrainian push had started, this was just the first element of it, “rather than the sum of such a thrust.”

“Western officials are unhelpfully raising expectations for rapid and dramatic Ukrainian advances that Ukrainian forces are unlikely to be able to meet,” it added. While it still believes that “Ukrainian forces can make significant gains,” it said, those were “likely to occur over a long period of time and interspersed with lulls and periods of slower and more grinding efforts.”

The U.S. defense secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III, speaking to reporters while visiting Papua New Guinea on Thursday, did not comment on the claims that the counteroffensive was in a new phase.

In the western thrust, the most intense fighting has been around the village of Robotyne, south of the town of Orikhiv, where Russian officials reported a “massive” Ukrainian assault on Wednesday and some Western analysts reported Ukrainian advances on Thursday.

On the eastern axis, the combat was centered on Staromaiorske, the southernmost in a string of villages that Ukraine has retaken since early June. A popular Russian war blogger, Aleksandr Khodakovsky, and Ukrainian officials both said on Thursday that Kyiv’s troops had seized the village in fierce fighting.

An image taken from video posted by President Volodomyr Zelensky of Ukraine purporting to show Ukrainian soldiers in the village of Staromaiorske.

Mr. Khodakovsky, a pro-Russian separatist military commander in the Donetsk region before it was annexed by Moscow, said that Russian forces facing the Ukrainian assault were “already pretty battered and at a critical level of fatigue.” Rybar, another popular Russian pro-war blog, reported Ukrainian gains in Staromaiorske, and added that “there was practically nothing left” of the village.

Ukrainian Special Forces released video, verified by The New York Times, that appears to show Ukrainian troops taking Russian soldiers prisoner in Staromaiorske.

In the past 10 days, the Kremlin has stepped up its missile and drone attacks on Ukrainian cities far behind the lines, particularly port facilities in and around Odesa, following Moscow’s withdrawal from an agreement allowing food shipments from Ukraine to bypass a Russian blockade.

The Kremlin on Wednesday and Thursday attacked airfields in western Ukraine with dozens of missiles, including some of the most expensive in its arsenal, Kinzhal hypersonic missiles, but the extent of damage was unclear.

Since seizing territory in southern Ukraine in their invasion last year, Russians have built a dense web of minefields, trenches, bunkers, tank traps and obstacles, and grinding through them has been slow, bloody work for the Ukrainian offensive.

A sign warning of the presence of mines inside the cemetery in the town of Sviatohirsk, in eastern Ukraine.Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

The first two weeks of the operation last month were marked by heavy losses, so Ukrainian military commanders paused and adjusted, focusing more on degrading Russian forces with artillery and long-range missile strikes than penetrating enemy minefields under fire.

Day after day, the Ukrainian military reports on dozens of strikes aimed at taking out Russian command and control centers, ammunition depots, troop concentrations, air-defense systems, rocket launchers and logistical operations. In particular, Storm Shadow missiles, which are fired from a plane and have a range exceeding 155 miles, have had a big impact, according to Western officials and military analysts.

U.S. officials say the timing makes sense to intensify the Ukrainian offensive, including the progress the Ukrainians have made clearing paths through some of the Russian defenses, wearing down Russian troops and artillery, and weakening Russian infrastructure and resources behind the lines.

“The Russians are stretched,” a Western official said on Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss operational details and intelligence assessments. “They are still experiencing problems with logistics, supply, personnel and weapons. They’re feeling the pressure.”

American officials also cite the turmoil within the Russian military hierarchy since the failed mutiny last month by the Wagner group that had been fighting for the Kremlin. Leaders who have questioned the conduct of the war or are viewed as insufficiently loyal have been removed or reassigned.

But Mick Ryan, a retired Australian Army major general, cautioned against making a snap assessment of the fighting, in part because Ukrainian forces were still a long way from being able to penetrate Russia’s main defensive lines.

“These are very initial reports, and first reports are almost always wrong,” he said.

Marc Santora reported from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Richard Pérez-Peña from New York. Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt from Washington, Anton Troianovski from Berlin, Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London, Carlotta Gall from the Zaporizhzhia region of Ukraine and Haley Willis from Seoul.

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