- Russia says it fought off attack in southern Ukraine
- Mercenary leader says Russia lost ground near Bakhmut
- Ukraine avoids saying whether counter-offensive has begun
KYIV, June 5 – Moscow said on Monday it had thwarted a major offensive against its forces in eastern Ukraine, but Ukrainian officials dismissed the report and both sides said the Ukrainian military had advanced elsewhere along the front line.
It was unclear whether the attacks represented the start of Ukraine’s long-heralded counter-offensive against Russia’s invasion. Ukrainian officials sidestepped questions about it.
Russia’s defence ministry said Ukraine had attacked on Sunday morning with six mechanised and two tank battalions in southern Donetsk, where Moscow has long suspected Ukraine would seek to drive a wedge through Russian-controlled territory.
“On the morning of June 4, the enemy launched a large-scale offensive in five sectors of the front in the South Donetsk direction,” the defence ministry said in a statement posted on Telegram at 1:30 a.m. Moscow time (2230 GMT).
“The enemy’s goal was to break through our defences in the most vulnerable, in its opinion, sector of the front,” it said. “The enemy did not achieve its tasks, it had no success.”
Asked to comment, a Ukrainian military spokesperson said: “We do not have such information and we do not comment on any kind of fake.”
Oleksiy Danilov, Secretary of Ukraine’s Security and Defence Council, said: “The war continues. Until complete victory.”
Further north, near the long-contested city of Bakhmut, Ukrainian forces were reported to have been “moving forward” by the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Oleksandr Syrskyi.
An armed forces video showed Russian positions under fire and Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin said Ukrainian forces had retaken part of the settlement of Berkhivka, north of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, calling it a “disgrace”.
Prigozhin’s private Wagner army captured Bakhmut last month after the longest battle of the war and handed its positions there to regular Russian troops.
A purported radio address by Russian President Vladimir Putin was broadcast to three regions bordering Ukraine telling residents Ukrainian forces had crossed the border, mobilisation had begun and they should flee, independent media reported.
“All of these messages are an utter fake,” Russian state-owned news agency RIA cited Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying.
Kyiv denies sending any troops into Russia but pro-Ukrainian forces have repeatedly crossed into one of the regions, Belgorod, in recent days and on Sunday said they had captured some Russian soldiers.
Ukraine has sent mixed messages about the timing of its counteroffensive. Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov posted a video on Sunday showing soldiers putting a finger to their lips and the words “There will be no announcement about the start”.
Russia’s defence ministry released video of what it said showed several Ukrainian armoured vehicles in a field blowing up after being hit. Reuters geo-located it to near Velyka Novosilka, a village west of Vuhledar in southern Donetsk region, but could not verify the date.
“There is a tough fight going on,” wrote prominent Russian military blogger Semyon Pegov, who writes under the name War Gonzo, saying Ukrainian forces were attacking in the area.
The ministry said Russian forces killed 250 Ukrainian soldiers as well as destroying 16 tanks, three infantry fighting vehicles and 21 armoured combat vehicles. Reuters was not able to verify the figures. Both sides have exaggerated casualties suffered by the other.
Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, who is in charge of Moscow’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, was in the area at the time of the Ukrainian attack, the ministry said.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak poured scorn on the report. “Russian news reports have long since become a separate virtual meta-universe,” he tweeted.
The daily report from Ukraine’s General Staff said only that there were 29 combat clashes in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine, while Ukraine’s Centre for Strategic Communications said Russia would seek to spread lies.
Russia now controls at least 18% of internationally recognised Ukrainian territory and has claimed four more regions of Ukraine as Russian territory after annexing Crimea in 2014.
For months, Ukraine has been preparing a fightback which officials in Kyiv and CIA Director William Burns have said will pierce Putin’s hubris.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told the Wall Street Journal in an interview published on Saturday that he was ready to launch it, but tempered a forecast of success with a warning that it could take some time and come at a heavy cost.
After seeking tens of billions of dollars of Western weapons to fight Russian forces, the success or failure of the counter-offensive is likely to influence the shape of future Western diplomatic and military support for Ukraine.
Putin sent troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24 last year in what the Kremlin expected to be swift operation but its forces suffered a series of defeats and had to move back and regroup in swathes of eastern Ukraine.
For months, tens of thousands of Russian troops have been digging in along a front line that stretches for around 600 miles (1,000 km), bracing for a Ukrainian attack expected to try to cut Russia’s so-called land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula.
The Kremlin says the West is fighting a hybrid war against Russia to sow discord and ultimately carve up its vast natural resources, allegations that Western leaders deny.
Ukraine casts the invasion as an imperial-style land grab by Russia and vows to eject every last Russian soldier.
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