Ukraine’s large-scale counteroffensive, anticipated for months, spearheaded by new Western tanks and armored vehicles, has finally begun.
No longer limited to shaping operations or localized counterattacks, evidence shows the beginning of major Ukrainian offensive pushes to break through fortified Russian lines along several axes.
Though Ukraine’s offensive operations are still in their early days, the two main axes of attack look to both be on the southern front line stretching from the Dnipro River across Zaporizhzhia Oblast to western Donetsk Oblast.
The first reports came on June 5, when Russian sources reported Ukrainian attacks around the village of Novodonetske, in the sector between Velyka Novosilka and Vuhledar in Donetsk Oblast. Vuhledar was the site of a large failed Russian offensive in winter.
On June 8, a new Ukrainian attempted advance was reported further west, near the town of Orikhiv.
Photo and video material quickly emerged on social media of several damaged and destroyed Ukrainian vehicles in the area, including Leopard 2 tanks, indicating that the first major Ukrainian attack with new Western equipment likely ended in failure, though the size of the force committed to the attack was unclear.
While no Ukrainian gains were verified on the Orikhiv axis in the days following this attack, Ukrainian forces instead found more success pushing ahead south of Velyka Novosilka.
Advancing steadily along both banks of the narrow Mokri Yaly River, Ukrainian units liberated a chain of villages, including Neskuchne, Blahodatne, Storozheve, and Makarivka.
On the evening of June 12, the liberation of these villages and three others in other sectors were confirmed by Deputy Defense Minsiter Hanna Maliar, who reported a total advance of 6.5 kilomteres in the area.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military continues to report successful counterattacks around Bakhmut in Donetsk Oblast, which was finally taken by Russian forces in late May after 10 months of brutal fighting.
“What we are seeing is definitely the beginning of the counteroffensive,” said military expert and senior fellow at the U.S.-based Foreign Policy Research Institute Rob Lee to the Kyiv Independent.
“I think it's going about as well as expected; they're taking losses but they're making gains as well,” he said.
“A combined arms breach is one of the most difficult things to do in warfare, and they (Ukraine) are doing that without air superiority, they're doing it without certain advantages that a military would want to have.”
The information front
In this first week of the counteroffensive, social media has been flooded with a flurry of images and videos, which threaten to quickly and inaccurately shape perception of how the operation is going on both sides.
On the Ukrainian side, photos of soldiers posing with Ukrainian flags in newly-liberated settlements, as well as the traditional drone footage of strikes on enemy armored vehicles, provide hope, whilst the images spread by Russian sources of destroyed Leopards and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles feed a narrative of the failure of Western equipment to break through Russian lines.
So far, in a manner similar to Ukraine’s counteroffensive in Kharkiv Oblast in September, the earliest available information on Ukrianian attacks has mostly come from Russian “milblogger” Telegram channels.
These channels are run by individuals, some of which are connected to official Russian media outlets and others who are more “independent” commentators. All are openly pro-war, but have built a reputation of reporting on front-line developments more honestly and accurately than the official Kremlin line.
Photo and video material posted of the battles in question, both by Russian milbloggers and by the social media channels of Ukrainian brigades, are then usually examined and verified by members of the open-source intelligence (OSINT) community.
Ukraine’s military, specifically Maliar, has confirmed the liberation of settlements by Ukrainian forces not long after they have occured, but beyond that, has maintained a policy of overall silence.
A video posted on June 11 by Ukrainian military intelligence showed the agency’s chief Kyrylo Budanov staring silently into the camera for thirty seconds, before the text “To be continued… Plans love silence” came on screen.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin came out unexpectedly early to comment on the Ukrainian counteroffensive, saying on June 9 that Ukrainian forces had not achieved any of their aims in their attacks.
According to political scientist Aleksandar Djokic, Putin’s surprise commentary is evidence that he has been assured by his military, led by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valerii Gerasimov, that everything is under control.
“This means that the army leadership takes full responsibility for what happens next,” Djokic wrote on Twitter. “They will be scapegoated if Ukraine reaches even a moderate success.”
Of Kyiv’s two attacks along the southern line, it is in the eastern sector around Velyka Novosilka where Ukrainian forces have made significant gains as of June 13.
Reports from both sides show Ukrainian units successfully pushing directly south of the front-line town, along both banks of the Mokri Yaly River.
Though some Russian sources initially claimed successful counterattacks around Makarivka, the liberation of the village was confirmed by Ukraine’s 35th Marine Brigade on the morning of June 13.
A few kilometers west of the river, Ukraine also reported to have liberated the village of Novodarivka, with reports that Kyiv had also taken neighboring Rivnopil.
The next targets in Ukraine’s path look to be the twin settlements of Staromaiorske and Urozhaine, where Russian milblogger Semen Pegov, better known as WarGonzo, reported on the morning of June 13 that fighting was ongoing.
Ukraine’s advances in this area have been significant, but by all accounts, they have yet to reach the main line of prepared Russian defenses, which will likely prove a greater challenge.
Analysis of satellite imagery of recently-built Russian fortifications on the southern front line shows the main line of Russian defense starting around 12 kilometers further down the Mokri Yaly, around the village of Heorhiivka.
Once this line is reached, according to Lee, the real test for Ukraine’s prospects of making a breakthrough will begin.
“It appears the Russian forces are defending pretty competently so far, but it's really hard to measure the attrition component,” he said.
“I think what Russia wants to do is to attrit Ukrainian units as much as possible as they advance to the main defensive line so that they don't have enough forces to breach it once they arrive.”
Several days after Ukrainian forces first advanced near Velyka Novosilka, a separate offensive was reported further west in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, pushing south from the front-line town of Orikhiv.
An offensive in this sector, aiming towards the occupied cities of Tokmak and Melitopol, has long been touted as the area in which a Ukrainian counteroffensive could make the most strategic gains, being the shortest and most straightforward path towards cutting off Russian forces’ land connection to occupied Crimea.
Given these expectations, this area is also where Russian fortifications are assessed to be their strongest, with several defensive lines consisting of minefields, lines of dragon’s teeth, and large anti-vehicle trenches, while key settlements like Tokmak are surrounded on all sides by more trenches.
It was from this attack, geolocated to a field just eight kilometers south of Orikhiv, that grim pictures were posted by Russian sources showing several German-built Leopard 2 tanks, American M2 Bradleys, and Leopard 2R breaching vehicles lying destroyed in the field.
According to Lee and other independent analysts, the appearance of equipment like the Leopards and Bradleys is proof that Ukraine has sent in at least some of its newly-prepared brigades, many of which boast Western equipment and NATO-trained personnel.
“The 47th Brigade which was in the Orikhiv area, they have the Bradleys and the Leopards; they have good equipment, they have a lot of breaching equipment,” said Lee.
“Based on the equipment they are using, I don't think this is a feint, I think this is a real attempt, but it was an attempt at a very difficult part of the front.”
From this one failed attempt alone, it is still too early to say whether or not Ukraine will launch fresh attacks south of Orikhiv.
“It made sense to try and advance in different directions of the front, and not all those were going to be successful,” added Lee.
“It makes sense that when they do have success for the Ukrainians to exploit that and to back it with more resources.”
As Ukraine strikes in the south, counterattacks are also continuing at the site of the fiercest fighting of the war, around the city of Bakhmut.
According to Maliar, Ukrainian forces have advanced a total of 3.5 kilometers on the right (southern) flank of Bakhmut and 1.5 kilometers on the left (northern) flank over the last week.
These attacks have been ongoing for more than a month, starting before Russian forces led by the Wagner mercenary group had even completed the capture of Bakhmut itself.
At the peak of the conflict between Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Russian Defense Ministry, Russian regular forces which had recently taken control of positions on the flanks of the city were reported to have fled in the face of Ukrainian counterattacks.
So far, Ukrainian gains continue to be led by the brigades already stationed in the area. On the southern flank, advances have been spearheaded by the Third Assault Brigade, which was established in November last year from units of the the Azov Special Operations Forces.
Active on social media, the brigade and its service members continue to post videos of allegedly successful assaults towards the town of Klishchiivka to the southwest of Bakhmut.
Meanwhile on the northern flank, Pegov wrote on June 12 that Ukrainian forces had reached the village of Berkhivka just four kilometers north of Bakhmut, and were actively assaulting it.
The site of very slow grinding Russian advances for over a year, the area around Bakhmut does not present the same opportunities for a strategic Ukrainian breakthrough as the southern front does, though in turn, it is less fortified.
Ukrainian Ground Forces Commander Oleksandr Syrskyi said back on May 21 that Ukrainian forces were approaching the “tactical encirclement of Bakhmut.”
For Moscow, inching to the last streets of Bakhmut was Russia’s only major victory since summer last year, and losing it immediately would be seen as a major embarrassment for the military, to whom Prigozhin left the city when he pulled Wagner troops out in early June.
A question of commitment
Ukraine’s attacks along the southern front line have signaled the beginning of the counteroffensive, but the peak of its intensity could still be weeks away.
In a June 11 article entitled “Think Ukraine’s Offensive Has Started? Wait for the Heavy Brigades,” retired U.S. Lieutenant-General Ben Hodges emphasized the fact that most of Ukraine’s well-armed reserve force has not yet appeared on the battlefield.
“The photos that we saw from the Orikhiv axis, that was a company-sized element, maybe two companies of vehicles they lost,” said Lee, “and Ukraine built nine new brigades, plus some other National Guard brigades and other units in reverse.”
“It's a small fraction of the entire force, it's important to keep in perspective that just because you have some tactical reverses does not mean the counteroffensive has failed,” he added.
For now, Kyiv is still holding the bulk of the force back, waiting to commit it to a certain axis of attack judged by early attacks to be the most favorable.
“If Ukraine sees Russian reserves being moved from one part of the front to another, maybe they will decide to commit elsewhere,” said Lee.
“If Russia commits reserves elsewhere, that might leave them vulnerable in another area, and might lead Ukraine to a different direction of advance.”
The choice to commit is one of incredibly high stakes. The more forces committed to a Ukrainian offensive push, the better chance of achieving the kind of breakthrough required, but the more painful and costly defeat will be if Russian fortified lines hold firm.
It is unknown exactly when the decision to commit will be made, but when the time comes, according to Lee, the signs on the battlefield will be clear.
“At some point they'll commit the rest of their reserves, I don't know when. There might be certain conditions that they are waiting for that aren't clear to us,” he said.
“In many cases, we've seen Ukraine conduct open warfare once sufficient attrition has happened to Russian forces. Right now we are seeing a lot of fighting, a lot of Ukrainian artillery strikes; maybe at some point, this weakens or degrades Russian units enough that the conditions for advancing in a particular direction will appear.”
Only once this point is reached, when a large Ukrainian force likely consisting of at least half a dozen brigades is seen assaulting Russia’s main defensive line, can early conclusions be made about the success of the ongoing counteroffensive.
“This offensive is going to be going on for weeks and months, and it is too early to say how it will pan out.”
Note from the author:
Hi, this is Francis Farrell, the author of this early analysis of Ukraine's much-awaited counteroffensive. At the Kyiv Independent and all over Ukraine, we had all been waiting for this counteroffensive to start, understanding why success is crucial for Ukraine's future. Whatever the outcome though, we are not going anywhere. Please consider supporting our reporting.