KYIV, Ukraine — A month into a war that began with widespread expectations of a swift Russian rout, the Ukrainian military has launched a counteroffensive that has changed the central dynamics of the fighting: the question is not is more about how far the Russian forces have advanced, but whether the Ukrainians are pushing them back now.
Ukraine blew up Russian helicopters stationed in the south and claimed on Thursday it had destroyed a navy vessel in the Sea of Azov. His forces hit a Russian supply convoy in the northeast.
Western and Ukrainian officials have also claimed progress in the fierce fighting around the capital, Kyiv.
Claimed territory gains are difficult to quantify or verify. In at least one crucial battle in a Kyiv suburb where Russian troops had closed in on the capital, brutal street battles were still raging on Thursday and it was unclear whether Ukraine had regained ground.
But even this blurry picture of Ukrainian progress is helpful for the country’s message to its citizens and to the world – that it is fighting an enemy with superior numbers and weapons, and not just to play defense. And it underscores the flawed planning and execution that has plagued Russian forces from the start, including supply shortages and demoralizing conditions for its soldiers. These missteps allowed Ukraine to unexpectedly go on the offensive.
In particular, by preventing Russian troops from capturing Irpin, a suburban town about 20 km from the center of kyiv, Ukraine has shown that its strategy of sending small units out of the capital to engage the Russians, often in ambushes, had paid off, at least for now.
Western governments have issued cautiously optimistic assessments of the counteroffensive. In an intelligence report released Wednesday, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said Ukrainian moves were “increasing pressure” on Russians east of kyiv, and that Ukrainian soldiers “probably recaptured Makariv” and another small city directly north of the capital.
While noting the inconclusive state of the battle, the report raised what it called a “realistic possibility” that the Ukrainian counteroffensive could succeed in encircling and cutting off the force’s supply lines. Russian invasion in the region, in what would be a clear tactical victory. for Ukraine. At least, he said, “successful Ukrainian counterattacks will disrupt the ability of Russian forces to reorganize and resume their own offensive towards kyiv.”
During the counter-offensive around Kyiv, the Ukrainian military ordered lower-level commanders to devise response strategies suitable for their local areas. In many cases, this involved sending small infantry units on reconnaissance missions to find and engage Russian forces that had deployed in villages near Kyiv, a soldier on one such mission told Reuters. weekend course.
In battles northwest of the capital, the weather is likely on Ukraine’s side, analysts say. The Russian columns are running out of fuel and ammunition, intercepted radio transmissions suggest. The soldiers have been sleeping in vehicles for a month, in freezing weather.
And military analysts consider this axis of the Russian advance, although it is closest to the center of kyiv, as the most troubled by logistical failures and setbacks in combat.
Yet without knowing now which army is actually advancing into the contested towns and villages, the war here is in a state of uncertainty, said Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia.
More broadly, across the country, time is also on Ukraine’s side to at least block the initial Russian invasion force. But that can change. An initial surge of patriotism may fade as the grim reality of war sets in or civilians begin to grasp Ukraine’s military casualties, of which little is known.
“Our understanding of where we are now in this war is very incomplete, and we have to be honest about that,” Kofman said. “If you don’t know who’s controlling what, you don’t know who has the momentum on the field.”
On Thursday, heavy fighting had sparked so many fires in towns around kyiv that the city was shrouded in a strange haze of white smoke. But signs of real progress on the ground were elusive. Ukrainian forces have not been able to demonstrate that they control any villages or towns previously held by the Russian military.
“They are fighting day and night and everything is burning,” said Olha, 33, a saleswoman who escaped from Irpin on Wednesday night and was not comfortable giving her full name. She was interviewed at an aid station for displaced civilians where a continuous, cacophonous rumble of explosions could be heard from nearby fighting.
Earlier on Wednesday, Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko told a news conference that Ukrainian forces had in fact repelled Russian troops and “almost all of Irpin is in Ukrainian hands.” Other Ukrainian and Western officials also offered more optimistic accounts than could be verified by witnesses.
Irpin Deputy Police Chief Oleksandr Bogai said Russian soldiers were still in the city, occupying several neighborhoods and fighting Ukrainian forces. It is essentially the same situation that persisted for almost the entire month of the war. “There are huge explosions and lots of smoke,” he said by phone. “The civilians are holed up in the basements. I don’t know exactly what is going on. »
In Makariv, another battleground town west of kyiv that Ukrainian officials claimed to have recaptured this week, fighting was also continuing, Vadym Tokar, the mayor, said in a telephone interview.
“I don’t understand where this nonsense is coming from,” he said of reports that his town had been liberated. “That’s not true. We have shelling and we have Russian tanks firing into the city right now.”
To be sure, some Western and Ukrainian official accounts have also offered more measured assessments. Kyiv Regional Military Administration chief Oleksandr Pavliuk said on Thursday that the counteroffensive had succeeded in “improving positions” in Irpin and Makariv, but did not assert control.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, announced the counteroffensive on March 16, after it became clear that the Russian armored columns had become bogged down, plagued by logistics and communication problems and had suffered losses in ambushes.
Russian forces continued to advance in eastern Ukraine, where their military claimed Thursday to have captured Izyum, a provincial town in the Kharkiv region that had been under attack for weeks. Ukraine denied being captured. Neither account could be independently confirmed.
In the fighting around kyiv, civilians evacuated from the combat zone painted a picture, not so much of liberated cities, but of chaotic and deadly violence.
Vladimir, 66, a retired furniture factory worker who declined to give his surname, left Irpin on Thursday morning after his house burned down overnight.
“Nobody is putting out the fires,” he said. “My neighbor’s house burned down and I saw sparks on my roof, then my house started to burn.”
Lacking water to fight the fire, he could only watch. “We should never surrender,” he said. “We will never live under the Russians again.”
There were also few signs that the Ukrainian government had established even rudimentary civilian services in the towns it was trying to retake.
A woman who also only offered her first name, Elena, arrived in tears at an aid station on the Irpin evacuation route, claiming neighbors had helped her bury her adult son in her backyard. court because no authority collected the dead.
“I just hope his grave will not be destroyed” in the artillery shelling, she said. “The men dug a grave in the garden between the roses, and put stones around it and a cross on it.”
Yet in a sign the counteroffensive has pushed into areas previously controlled by Russian troops, a Ukrainian unit recovering servicemen who died on the battlefield has now also found the bodies of Russian soldiers in towns around kyiv. , according to Serhiy Lysenko, the head of the unit. commander.
He declined to say in which cities he had worked. For now, he said in a phone interview, they are leaving the Russian dead behind, not wanting to take any additional risks to recover them.
Mr Kofman, of the CNA research institute, said: “It is clear that Russia cannot achieve its original political goals in this war now. He said Russia had to change its goals or alter its military strategy “if it wants to sustain this full-scale war beyond the coming weeks.”
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine.