Ukraine’s Counteroffensive Has Likely Begun

Ukraine launched a flurry of localized offensives across the battlefield on June 4 and 5, most notably in Russian-occupied southern Donetsk Oblast. These attacks likely aim merely to probe Russian defenses or divert Russia’s attention from a forthcoming larger offensive. Nevertheless, the early stages of Kyiv’s much-anticipated counteroffensive appear to have begun.

Ukraine reportedly launched assaults in or around Mar’inka, Avdiivka, and Bakhmut. In the south, Russian sources said Ukraine conducted small-scale reconnaissance-in-force near Mala Tokmachka in Zaporizhzhia Oblast and stepped up incursions across the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast. In addition, groups of Russian nationals fighting for Ukraine conducted the latest in a series of raids across the Russian-Ukrainian border into Belgorod Oblast. These assaults follow a weekslong campaign of strikes against targets deep in the Russian rear.

The most significant Ukrainian attacks occurred in southern Donetsk Oblast. Much about the offensive remains murky. Accounts from Russian sources vary, while the Ukrainian government has kept particularly quiet regarding its military operations in the area. Available evidence suggests Ukrainian forces achieved some modest gains while also taking significant losses.

According to Russia’s Ministry of Defense (MoD), Ukrainian forces “launched a large-scale offensive in five sectors of the front in the South Donetsk direction” on Sunday morning, seeking to break through what they saw as the most vulnerable part of the front. Ukraine’s newly formed 23rd and 31st mechanized brigades led the offensive, supported by other units, the MoD said, adding that a total of six mechanized battalions and two tank battalions participated. Ukraine’s newly formed 47th Artillery Brigade also appears to have recently deployed to the area.

Russian sources said Ukrainian motorized infantry units, supported by tanks, launched assaults near the Russian-occupied villages of Neskuchne, Rivnopil’, Novodarivka, and Levadne on Sunday. These settlements are located southwest of Ukrainian-controlled Velyka Novosilka, a small but tactically important town in southern Donetsk Oblast. Ukraine may have also attacked toward Blahodatne (a.k.a. Oktyabar), south of Neskuchne, and settlements south of Vuhledar, where Russia conducted an ill-fated offensive last winter.

Some popular Russian military bloggers indicated that Ukraine managed to take Neskuchne and Novodarivka and then pushed southward toward adjacent settlements. However, various Russian sources, including the MoD, later claimed that Russia had pushed the Ukrainian attackers back to their original positions. According to the MoD, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, who has commanded Russian forces in Ukraine since January, led the defense from a forward command post in the area.

Drone footage confirms that Ukrainian forces at least temporarily reached the outskirts of Novodarivka. In a video posted on Sunday, two Ukrainian tanks faced off against three Russian tanks on the outskirts of Novodarivka. One of the Russian tanks was destroyed. A subsequent video, released by the MoD, shows an assault in the same area by at least 10 Ukrainian vehicles, most of which appear to be mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, or MRAPs. Several were damaged or destroyed, perhaps after hitting some of the many mines Russia has laid in recent months. But the other vehicles pressed on.

MoD-released footage also shows a number of Ukrainian vehicles, mainly MRAPs or other lightly armored wheeled vehicles, knocked out west of Neskuchne and northwest of nearby Storozheve. Another video captured 10 destroyed or abandoned Ukrainian vehicles northeast of Rivnopil’, including a T-72 tank and various Western-supplied armored vehicles.

On Monday, Ukraine reportedly launched additional, larger assaults, this time attacking in seven directions with forces from five different brigades, per the MoD. The ministry said three Ukrainian battalion tactical groups, reinforced by tanks, attacked Russian positions near Blahodatne as well as Novodonets’ke, a settlement southeast of Velyka Novosilka. These forces allegedly came from Ukraine’s newly formed 37th Marine Brigade, reinforced by elements of the 68th Jaeger Brigade. A video shared on Monday shows what appear to be two abandoned French AMX-10RC assault vehicles, which the 37th Brigade operates, although it’s unclear where the video was taken.

In addition, the MoD said that consolidated units from the 23rd and 31st mechanized brigades, along with an unnamed fresh brigade, continued attacking near Novodarivka and Levadne. Russian sources also reported Ukrainian attacks toward Neskuchne and Storozheve.

Although Moscow claimed the assaults failed, Russian war correspondents said Ukrainian forces reached the outskirts of Novodonets’ke. A Western official said they advanced up to 5 or 6 kilometers in the area. One Russian correspondent said the Ukrainians sought to bypass Novodonets’ke from the west, perhaps seeking to reach Staromlynivka, around 16 kilometers south of Velyka Novosilka, to cut Russia’s main supply route in the area. However, some Russian sources claimed Ukrainian troops had retreated by Wednesday morning.

Unlike in Ukraine’s wildly successful counteroffensive in Kharkiv Oblast last fall, Russian war correspondents and military bloggers praised the Russian Air Force’s role in blunting the Ukrainian assaults earlier this week. A video shared by a Russian Telegram channel showed Russian helicopters conducting nine anti-tank guided missile strikes on Ukrainian vehicles, allegedly during the recent attacks.

On Monday, a Russian-installed official in Zaporizhzhia Oblast claimed Russian tactical aviation was bombing Ukrainian equipment concentrations from Velyka Novosilka to Zaporizhzhia’s city of Hulyaipole, where Ukrainian authorities reported a bomb strike the day prior. If true, these strikes likely used Russia’s newly UMPK kits, which turn “dumb” bombs into precision-guided glide munitions with standoff range.

Although several of Kyiv’s newly formed brigades have allegedly entered the fray, most of the forces it set aside for the counteroffensive have not. Ukraine apparently still hasn’t committed eight of its nine newly formed brigades trained in NATO countries and equipped largely with Western-donated tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and armored personnel carriers.

The Ukrainian attacks earlier this week appear to be reconnaissance-in-force operations, probing for weaknesses in Russian defenses. Kyiv might also hope to divert Russian attention from wherever it intends to launch its main effort.

If Kyiv elects to ramp up offensive operations in the southern Donetsk area, it may seek to push southward toward the occupied coastal city of Mariupol. That attack could constitute Ukraine’s main effort or a secondary one, perhaps supporting a drive toward Melitopol’ in Zaporizhzhia Oblast.

As analyst Rob Lee noted, Kyiv may see Russia’s position in southern Donetsk Oblast as vulnerable because Moscow recently redeployed some units from there to hold the Wagner paramilitary group’s flanks and stem Ukrainian counterattacks around Bakhmut. Moreover, Russian fortified defensive lines in southern Donetsk Oblast appear to be thinner than in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, where Moscow likely expects the main thrust of Ukraine’s counteroffensive to occur.

Wherever Kyiv elects to strike, its troops will likely face dug-in Russian forces and withering artillery fire. Ukraine’s counteroffensive has a fair chance of success but will probably be a tough slog even if ultimately successful, much like its offensive in Kherson Oblast last year.

John Hardie is the deputy director of FDD’s Russia Program and a contributor to FDD's Long War Journal.

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