Ukraine claimed to have destroyed bridges and ammunition depots and pounded command posts in a surge of fighting in the Russian-occupied south, fueling speculation Tuesday that its long-awaited counteroffensive to try to turn the tide of war was underway. Russia said it repelled the attack and inflicted heavy casualties.
The clashes took place in the country’s Kherson region, where Moscow’s forces rolled up major gains early in the war. But Ukrainian authorities kept the world guessing about their intentions.
While independent verification of battlefield action has been difficult, Britain’s Defense Ministry said in an intelligence report that several Ukrainian brigades had stepped up their artillery fire in front-line sectors across southern Ukraine.
The port city of Kherson, with a prewar population of about 300,000, is an important economic hub close to the Black Sea and the first major city to fall to the Russians in the war that began six months ago. The port remains at the heart of Ukraine’s efforts to preserve its vital access to the sea, while Russia views it as a key point in a land corridor extending from its border to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized in 2014.
Occupation forces have spoken of plans to hold a referendum on making the Kherson region a part of Russia and have pressured residents to take Russian citizenship and stop using Ukraine’s currency.
Ukraine’s presidential office reported that “powerful explosions continued during the day and night in the Kherson region. Tough battles are ongoing practically across all” of the area. Ukrainian forces, the office said, destroyed ammunition depots and all large bridges across the Dnieper River vital to supplying Russian troops.
The Ukrainian military also reported destroying a pontoon bridge on the Dnieper that the Russian forces were setting up and hitting a dozen command posts with artillery fire.
Russian state news agency Tass that reported explosions rocked Kherson on Tuesday morning — most likely caused by air defense systems.
Alluding to the talk of a major counteroffensive, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address on Monday that one “won’t hear specifics from any truly responsible person” about Kyiv’s intentions, “because this is war.”
The British said that the most of Russia’s units around Kherson “are likely under-manned and are reliant upon fragile supply lines” while its forces there are undergoing a significant reorganization.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Lt. Gen. Igor Konashenkov maintained that its forces stood up well and that Ukraine lost hundreds of troops, tanks and other armored vehicles in Monday’s action. His claim could not be independently verified.
Ukrainian independent military analyst Oleh Zhdanov told The Associated Press that “it will be possible to talk about the effectiveness of Ukrainian actions only after large cities are retaken.” He added that Ukrainian forces had breached the first and the second lines of defense in the Kherson region several times in the past, “but it didn’t bring about results.”
“The most important thing is Ukrainian artillery’s work on the bridges, which the Russian military can no longer use,” Zhdanov said.
The war has ground to a stalemate over the past months, with casualties and destruction rising and the population bearing the brunt of the suffering during relentless shelling in the east and south.
Amid fears that the fighting around the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant could lead to a catastrophe, a U.N. atomic energy agency team set out on a mission to inspect and safeguard the complex. Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of shelling the area over and over.
Nikopol, a city just across the Dnieper from the plant, again came under a barrage of heavy shelling, local authorities said, with a bus station, stores and a children’s library damaged. And a Russian missile strike targeted the city of Zaporizhzhia, about 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the plant, Ukraine said.