Ukraine presses counteroffensive as flood evacuations continue in south

Kyiv, Ukraine — Heavy fighting continued in southeastern Ukraine on Friday as Kiev forces pressed ahead with a major counteroffensive, but appeared to meet strong resistance from Russian units dug into fortified positions.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said early Friday that “very tough battles were underway” in the eastern Donetsk region, including in the hotly contested city of Bakhmut, which Russia seized last month. Zelensky hinted at some gains, but did not offer specifics. “Bakhmut, well done,” said the president. “Step by step”.

In some areas, Ukrainian forces were able to take advantage of Russian troop rotations, according to Serhiy Cherevatyi, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Eastern Command, as fighters from the Wagner paramilitary group were swapped for regular Russian troops.

“The units that are entering are not yet fully familiar with the area and have not conducted adequate reconnaissance and coordination [so] we struck and have been conducting assault operations for several days,” Cherevatyi said.

Ukraine was also looking to advance in the southeastern region of Zaporizhzhia, which Russian forces have spent months fortifying with mines and trenches. Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Russian troops were “actively on the defensive” around Orikhiv, a small town 60 miles northeast of Melitopol, the capital of the Russian-occupied region .

Maliar’s comments were the first confirmation from a senior Ukrainian official that the counteroffensive was underway in Zaporizhzhia, where Kiev hopes its troops can advance south and break the “land bridge” connecting mainland Russia with occupied Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014. that Ukrainian forces had gone on the offensive after months in defensive positions in the town of Velyka Novosilka in the neighboring Donetsk region.

In the 36 hours since the start of Ukraine’s counterattack, no significant gains have been reported by the country’s political or military leadership, indicating that this phase of the war is likely to be much more difficult than the similar campaigns last fall, in which Kiev exploited the Russian. weaknesses, including overstretched supply lines, to regain territory in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke for the first time on Friday about Ukraine’s new campaign, saying that “all counteroffensive attempts made so far have failed.”

Speaking to reporters after a meeting of Commonwealth of Independent States leaders in the Russian resort city of Sochi, Putin acknowledged there had been heavy fighting but said Ukrainian forces had not achieved any of their objectives . “But the offensive potential of the troops of the Kiev regime is still preserved,” he added.

On Thursday, Russian state news agency Tass released drone footage, verified by The Washington Post, showing the destruction of several Ukrainian military vehicles in Zaporizhzhia. The vehicles were part of a convoy that included German-made Leopard 2 tanks, two military analysts said, a sign that Ukraine had begun deploying more advanced weaponry provided by its Western allies.

The Ukrainian army begins the counter-offensive to expel the Russian occupiers

A senior Western intelligence official told The Post that for now, Ukraine appeared to be holding back its most significant firepower, noting that the biggest blow “has yet to come.” He spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.

The long-awaited counteroffensive unfolded as Ukraine’s beleaguered emergency services and Russian occupation authorities struggled to respond to a deepening humanitarian crisis in the southern Kherson region, where devastating floods followed Tuesday’s ‘collapse of the Russian-controlled Kakhovka Dam.

Ukrainian officials have insisted that Russia destroyed the dam by causing an explosion at the Kakhovka hydroelectric plant. On Friday, Ukrainian security services released a recording of a phone conversation allegedly between two Russian servicemen, which Kiev claimed was evidence of Russian sabotage.

“It wasn’t them,” a voice, described by Ukrainians as a Russian soldier, says in the recording, using an expletive to refer to the destruction of the dam. “It was ours [guys].”

“[Our] there was a sabotage group,” says a second soldier. “They wanted to scare [people] with this take It didn’t go as planned. It was more than they had anticipated.”

The Post was unable to independently verify the authenticity of the recording, and the U.S. has not publicly issued a determination about what happened in the shot, or who, if anyone, was behind it. the responsible

While assessments of the collapse were still ongoing, the senior Western intelligence official pointed to several factors that suggested Russian culpability, namely that Russia controlled the section of the dam where the hydroelectric unit was ‘fits the overall structure, a vulnerable point that would likely be exploited to destroy the dam, which was otherwise believed to be structurally sound.

“If you have access to the inside of the dam, as they did, you can exploit that vulnerability in a way that someone else couldn’t,” the official said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has blamed Ukraine for the destruction of the dam, saying Kiev carried out the attack to “deprive Crimea of ​​water” and distract them from battlefield mishaps. Russia has not provided evidence to support that claim or explained how Ukraine attacked the dam, which Russia seized at the start of its invasion last year.

At least one person died in the floods, Ukraine’s interior ministry said, and thousands of people were evacuated, with many more waiting to be rescued.

The death toll was highest in Russian-held areas on the east bank of the Dnieper River, where some towns and villages were completely submerged and residents complained that help was slow to arrive.

Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-installed leader of occupied Kherson, said at least eight people had died in flooded territories under Russian control and 5,800 people had been evacuated, “of which 243 are children, 62 people with reduced mobility.” .

The powerful American arsenal for the counteroffensive of Ukraine

Russia and Ukraine blamed each other for the continued shelling of Kherson, adding to the misery of residents trying to flee the floods.

On Thursday, four people were killed and at least 17 wounded in four separate artillery attacks by Russian forces on the city of Kherson and its surrounding villages, according to Ukrainian officials.

It is unclear how flooding on the occupied eastern bank of the Dnieper will affect Ukraine’s military operations in Zaporizhzhia. Some Russian military positions were wiped out by the floods, but Ukraine’s ability to move forces around the area is now severely limited.

Water will continue to flow over the destroyed dam from the Kakhovka reservoir at its current rate for the next seven to eight days, Ihor Syrota, director of Ukraine’s state hydroelectric company, told national television.

The dam collapse could also have implications for the now Russian-held Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which used water from the reservoir for cooling. The director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, described the situation as “precarious” this Thursday. According to Grossi, the plant is still pumping cooling water from the reservoir, but it was unclear when and at what level the reservoir will stabilize.

Elsewhere in Ukraine, Russian forces carried out two separate rocket attacks in the central regions of Cherkasy and Zhytomyr on Thursday night and early Friday, killing one person and wounding a total of 11, according to regional leaders.

And violence continued to escalate further on Russian soil on Friday, when a drone struck a residential building in the western city of Voronezh. Tass reported that the drone had targeted a local aircraft plant but crashed in a residential area after being intercepted, injuring three people and prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency.

Timeline Russia-Ukraine: key moments, from the attack on Kiev to the counter-offensive

“The Kiev regime continues to attack civilian infrastructure facilities and residential buildings,” Kremlin spokesman Peskov said.

Artillery and drone strikes also hit the Belgorod region in western Russia. According to the governor of Belgorod, Vyacheslav Gladkov, nearly 200 types of ammunition and artillery fire landed in the urban district of Shebekinsky, about four kilometers from Ukraine, and at least three people were hospitalized with shrapnel wounds.

The region has seen an increase in shelling in recent days and thousands of residents have been evacuated from several Russian border towns. Photos from the city of Shebekino early Friday showed burned buildings and apartment blocks in flames.

Ebel reported from London. Mary Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia, and Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.

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