September 29, 2023

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Recall that Russia talks about heavy fighting in southern Ukraine, Kiev says little

  • Russia and Ukraine are talking about fighting in the east and south
  • Putin says the Ukrainian counterattack is failing
  • Zelensky says it’s not the time to discuss what’s going on

KIEV (Reuters) – Russia reported heavy fighting along the front in southern Ukraine on Friday, with bloggers describing the first sightings of German and American armored vehicles, in a sign that a long-awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive was underway.

With almost no independent reporting from the front lines and Kiev having little to say, it was impossible to assess whether Ukraine was breaching Russian defenses in its attempt to dislodge the occupying forces.

“We can say with certainty that this offensive has begun,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in Sochi. “The Ukrainian forces did not achieve their goals in any sector,” he added.

The counterattack is ultimately expected to include thousands of Western-trained and equipped Ukrainian forces. Russia, which had months to prepare its defensive lines, says it has repulsed the attacks since the beginning of the week. Kiev said its main efforts had yet to begin.

Moscow and Russian pro-war bloggers reported fierce fighting on Friday at the Zaporizhia front near the city of Orekyev, around the middle of Russia’s “land bridge” with Crimea, seen as one of Ukraine’s potential targets.

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Ben Barry, a senior fellow on land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said reports from Russian bloggers of German-made Leopard tanks and US-made Bradley armored vehicles near Tokmak south of Orikhiv, if confirmed, would provide the first evidence of Ukraine’s new brigades of armed forces. Western joined the fray.

In all, Kiev has 12 brigades totaling 50,000-60,000 soldiers ready to launch a counterattack. Nine of the brigades were armed and trained by the West.

“They have a choice in how many to stick to initially and how many to keep in reserve in case the battlefield dynamics change,” Barry said, adding that Ukraine’s first priority would be to try to keep the Russians off balance and gain tactical surprise through deception and camouflage.

The Russian Defense Ministry said: “The Ukrainian armed forces continued their attempts to conduct offensive operations in the directions of southern Donetsk and Zaporizhia.”

It said its forces had repulsed two Ukrainian attacks south of Orekiv and four near Velika Novosilka to the east, where it said the Ukrainian offensive force included two battalions of troops supported by tanks. Several battalions of up to 1,000 soldiers consist of a brigade.

Kiev has said almost nothing about the southern front, where it is widely expected to attempt its main push towards the coast. And only Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said that the battles are continuing for Velika Novosilka and that the Russian forces are waging an “active defense” in Orekiv.

In the east, Ukraine announced gains in territory around Bakhmut, which Russian forces captured last month after nearly a year of Europe’s bloodiest ground battles since World War Two. Ukraine generally denies journalists access to its side of the front lines during offensive operations.

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Flood Disaster Anti-Shadows

The early days of the counteroffensive this week were overshadowed by a massive humanitarian catastrophe after the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam that backed the waters of the Dnipro River that divides Ukraine.

Thousands of people have been forced to evacuate their flooded homes in the war zone, vast nature reserves have been wiped out, and the destruction of irrigation systems will likely cripple agriculture in much of southern Ukraine for decades. Kiev said at least four people had died and 13 were missing.

On Friday, Ukrainian security services released a recording of what they described as an intercepted phone call, in which a Russian soldier confirmed to another man that a Russian sabotage group had blown up the dam. Moscow says Ukraine has ruined it.

Western nations say they are still gathering evidence but argue that Ukraine would have no reason to inflict such a devastating disaster on itself, especially as its forces were heading for the offensive.

At Hula Pristan on the Russian-occupied side of the river, rescuers evacuated residents in rubber dinghies. The villagers carried pets or small children to safety.

“Our house was swept away by a torrent of water,” said a woman who gave her name only as Oksana, as she was being evacuated in a boat with her teenage daughter and two dogs.

Some relatives of people in areas hit by Russian-controlled floods said their loved ones were still stuck to rooftops due to dwindling food supplies.

The river divides the two sides, with each accusing the other of bombing across it, impeding rescue efforts. The Kremlin said that the Ukrainian bombing killed people, including a pregnant woman. No evidence was provided.

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In his nightly video address, delivered on a train after a visit to the flooded area, President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked Ukrainian forces and repeated previous claims of success at Bakhmut, but gave no other account of the fighting.

“We see all the details. But it is not the time to talk about it today,” he said.

In the latest Russian air strikes, Ukraine said it shot down four out of six missiles overnight, but one person was killed and three wounded by falling debris. It posted pictures on Telegram of firefighters attending to the burning wreckage of what appeared to be homes.

The air force said two cruise missiles hit a civilian target in the Cherkassy region of central Ukraine. The region’s governor, Ihor Taborets, said at least eight people were injured.

Russian officials said Ukraine had bombed the Russian city of Voronezh with a drone, injuring three people, and reported other drone attacks in Belgorod and Kursk. Kiev declined to comment on reports of attacks inside Russia.

Additional reporting by Mark Trevelyan and Reuters.

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