Ukraine’s counteroffensive appears to have started: Here’s what to know

Ukraine began launching attacks in the eastern Donetsk region over the weekend in what appears to be the first wave of Kyiv’s long-anticipated counteroffensive.

Ukrainian commanders have sent in mechanized brigades, including heavy battle tanks, along with conventional troops to assault several locations in the southern Donetsk region, where Russian troops are entrenched.

One Ukrainian official said its military is “shifting to offensive actions” in some areas, but Kyiv has largely remained silent on the attacks. A range of Western and Russian analysts are reporting that the operation signals the start of the counteroffensive.

The heavy fighting in southern Donetsk indicates Ukraine may be attempting to strike through perceived weaknesses in the fortified Russian lines of eastern Ukraine after weeks of probing, though Ukrainian soldiers have yet to make any serious advances.

Here’s what to know about the operations and Ukraine’s counteroffensive.

Most of the fighting is taking place near a few towns

Russian military bloggers and officials say Ukraine is primarily assaulting the area surrounding two urban towns in the southern Donetsk region: Novodonetsk and Velyka Novosilka.

Both towns lie near the southern Zaporizhzhia region, which military analysts say Ukraine may target in order to cut off a land bridge and a major supply hub linked to Russian-occupied Crimea.

The main campaign appears to be centered on Novodonetsk, which is nestled between Velkya Novosilka and Vuhledar, a city largely held by Ukrainian forces that Russia has attempted to capture for months.

The offensive around Novodonetsk began Sunday, according to Russian analysts, and the first wave of the attack largely failed.

Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed in a Telegram post that more than 250 Ukrainian service members were killed, while 16 tanks, 26 armored fighting vehicles, and 14 vehicles were destroyed.

“The enemy did not achieve their goals,” the Defense Ministry wrote.

However, Ukrainian troops regrouped in the early morning hours Monday and struck again, this time with more force, wrote Russian military blog account WarGonzo.

“The Armed Forces of Ukraine managed to form a much more serious armored fist,” it said. “Much more equipment is involved than the day before.”

Multiple Russian military analysts claimed Ukraine had deployed Germany’s Leopard II tanks, along with infantry fighting vehicles such as American-made Strykers.

Alexander Khodakovsky, the commander of the pro-Russian rebel group Vostok Battalion, said the situation was growing “difficult.”

“The enemy, having felt our weak points, is stepping up his efforts,” he wrote on Telegram. “As I expected yesterday — smelling the smell of success, the enemy will throw additional forces into the battle.”

While the main operation appears to be in southern Donetsk, Russian analysts have also reported Ukrainian operations further north in the Donetsk, near the town of Soledar and city of Bakhmut.

The operation is likely just the beginning

Despite growing pressure on Russian forces, Ukraine has yet to commit its main forces to the battle.

Col. Oleksandr Bakulin, who leads a contingent of troops near Bakhmut, told ABC News the fighting underway now was part of a bigger plan and the clashes in south Donetsk would “eventually lead to the counteroffensive.”

Alexander Kots, a Russian military blogger with more than 600,000 subscribers on Telegram, said the main forces could be introduced “in a completely different area.”

Igor Girkin, a former Russian military officer and now a prominent Russian military blogger, said he was “terribly worried about Maryinka,” suggesting Ukraine might strike there in a surprise attack.

Maryinka is a Russian-held city just south of Bakhmut and north of Vuhledar.

The Institute for the Study of War said it “has observed increased combat activity in different sectors of the frontline and assesses that Ukrainian forces are making territorial gains despite Russian claims to the contrary.”

Ukraine remains mostly silent

Besides Bakulin’s vague comments to ABC News, Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said on Telegram the military was “shifting to offensive actions” in some areas around Bakhmut.

“Despite stiff resistance and the enemy’s attempts to hold the occupied lines and positions, our units advanced in several directions during the fighting,” she said.

But Ukrainian officials have been largely silent on the developments.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has not mentioned the counteroffensive operations in his nightly addresses for the past two days, and his usually vocal assistants remain silent.

Ukraine’s General Staff of the Armed Forces has posted updates of the battlefield in the past two days without writing anything about the counteroffensive.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov released a video on Twitter showing a number of Ukrainian troops putting a finger to their lips.

“Plans love silence,” a caption in the video reads. “There will be no announcement about the start.”

U.S. officials told The New York Times the surge in attacks may be a sign that the counteroffensive has begun.

Ukraine’s larger counteroffensive faces political challenges

Kyiv has prepared for months to retake territory in eastern Ukraine and received nearly all of the promised military equipment for the counteroffensive in April.

With the eyes of the world on the Ukrainian operation, Ukraine faces sky-high expectations to succeed, potentially imperiling continued Western support if troops fail to retake significant chunks of territory from Russia.

Ukraine surprised the world last year by beating back Russian troops from the west and reclaiming the Kherson and Kharkiv regions.

However, Russian forces, who once underestimated the strength of Ukraine’s resolve, have spent months fortifying their lines in eastern Ukraine.

U.S. officials say Ukraine has what it needs to break through the lines and succeed, but they have moderated expectations, with White House national security spokesperson John Kirby last month saying Ukraine must know how to use the equipment to seize victory.

On Monday, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Ukraine was “very well prepared” for the operation but did not assess the outcome of the counteroffensive.

“I think it’s too early to tell what outcomes are going to happen,” Milley told CNN.

Update: 8:15 p.m.

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