KYIV, Ukraine — A surge in fighting on the southern front line and a Ukrainian claim of new attacks on Russian positions fed speculation Tuesday that a long-expected counteroffensive to try to turn the tide of war has started.
However, officials in Kyiv cautioned against optimism in a conflict that had seen similar hopes of changing fortunes.
Even though independent verification of battlefield moves has been extremely tough, the British defense ministry said in an intelligence report that, as of early Monday, “several brigades of the Ukrainian Armed Forces increased the weight of artillery fires in front line sectors across southern Ukraine.”
Attention centered on potential damage Ukraine might have inflicted on Russian positions around the port city of Kherson, a major economic hub close to the Black Sea and one of Moscow’s prized possessions since it started the invasion just over half a year ago.
Ukraine’s presidential office reported Tuesday that “powerful explosions continued during the day and night in the Kherson region. Tough battles are ongoing practically across all” of the strategic area. According to reports, Ukrainian forces have decimated a large number of ammunition depots and bridges crossing the Dnieper, which are essential to supply Russian troops with supplies.
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Russian state news agency Tass reported five explosions rocking Kherson on Tuesday morning—blasts likely caused by air defense systems at work.
The Ukrainian military’s Operation Command South also reported destroying a pontoon crossing the Dnieper that the Russian forces were setting up and hitting a dozen command posts in several areaas of the Kherson region with artillery fire.
“The most important thing is Ukrainian artillery’s work on the bridges, which the Russian military can no longer use,” Ukrainian independent military analyst Oleh Zhdanov told The Associated Press.
“Even the barges have been destroyed. The Russians can’t sustain forces near Kherson—this is the most important.”
On Monday, the southern command center’s Nataliya Gumenyuik told Ukrainian news outlet Liga.Net that Kyiv’s forces have launched offensive operations “in many directions in our area of responsibility and have breached the enemy’s first line of defense.” The statement quickly made headlines after weeks of reports that Ukraine forces were preparing an offensive there and as Ukrainian attacks on the Kherson region intensified.
Zhdanov said that Russia has three lines of defense in the Kherson region, and breaching the first one signals only “isolated offensive actions by the Ukrainian army.”
These past few months have seen the war grind to a halt with increasing casualties and local populations suffering from the relentless bombardment in the east, as well as in the larger area surrounding the Zaporizhzhia Atomic Power Plant which is Russian-occupied and has also been at heart of fighting for Ukraine.
Fears that the plant may be damaged could result in a radioactive release. The U.N. nuclear watchdog group has been dispatched to Kyiv, where they are further planning a mission for the Russian-occupied plant to prevent nuclear catastrophe.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for the International Atomic Energy Agency experts, who will visit the plant in a country where the 1986 Chernobyl disaster spewed radiation throughout the region, shocking the world and intensifying a global push away from nuclear energy.
“Without an exaggeration, this mission will be the hardest in the history of IAEA,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said.
Complicating an already complex task is the inability to come to an agreement by both sides on any other than allowing the team to leave. Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of shelling the wider region around the nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, time and again.
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Nikopol, which is just across the Dnieper River from the Zaporizhzhia plant, once again came under a barrage of heavy shelling, local authorities said, with a bus station, stores and a children’s library sustaining damage.
Officials have started giving anti-radiation tablets to residents near the accident scene because of the dangers involved.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reacted to speculation about whether his forces had launched a major counteroffensive by asking in his nightly video address Monday, “Anyone want to know what our plans are? You won’t hear specifics from any truly responsible person. Because this is war.” His adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, cautioned against “super-sensational announcements” about a counteroffensive.
Sergei Aksyonov – the Moscow-appointed Russian regional leader for Crimea – dismissed the Ukrainian claim that there was an offensive in the Kherson Region. According to Aksyonov, Ukrainian forces had suffered significant losses in the region. And For its part, Russia’s Defense Ministry said its forces had inflicted heavy personnel and military equipment losses on Ukrainian troops.
Kherson, located north of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Russia annexed it in 2014 and started a war that was frozen until its February 24, invasion.
Yuras Karamanau, Tallinn (Estonia) contributed.
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