Ukrainian military officials said Monday their troops have retaken another southeastern village from Russian forces, among the first — small — successes in stepped-up counteroffensive operations as the war drags on into its 16th month.
Western analysts and military officials have cautioned that an effort to rid Ukraine of entrenched, powerfully armed and skilled Russian troops could take years, and the success of any Ukrainian counteroffensive is far from certain.
Despite their small size, capturing the villages is an incursion into the first line of Russian defenses and could allow Ukrainian forces to try a deeper thrust into occupied areas. Russian forces now control land totaling about one-fifth of Ukraine’s total territory, though that’s far less than they held before blistering Ukrainian counteroffensives last year that retook the northern city of Kharkiv and southern city of Kherson.
On Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said “counteroffensive, defensive actions are taking place” without specifying whether it was an all-out counteroffensive, a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin asserted that the counteroffensive had started and Ukrainian forces were taking “significant losses.” He did not elaborate, and Ukrainian authorities have not publicly specified losses among their troops.
Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar wrote on Telegram that Ukraine’s flag was again flying over the village of Storozhov. A day earlier, Ukrainian officials said they had taken three other small villages — Blahodatne, Makarivka and Neskuchne — south of the town of Velyka Novosilka in the eastern Donetsk region.
The small villages — Blahodatne, for example, had a pre-invasion population of about 1,000 people — are located in the so-called “Vremivka salient,” a section of the front line where the Russian-controlled area protrudes into territory held by Ukraine. While it is just a few kilometers (more than 1 mile) deep, the area has become one of several epicenters of intense fighting.
Ukrainian forces have focused on other patches of the vast front line, including in the Zaporizhzhia region, and near the devastated city of Bakhmut to the north in Donetsk.
Vladimir Rogov, an official with the Moscow-appointed administration of the Zaporizhzhia region at the west end of the front line, said “heavy battles are raging” in the salient on Monday, involving Russian artillery, mortars and air power.
Russian authorities have said their troops have largely held their ground along the more than 1,000-kilometer (600-mile) arc of front line across southern and eastern Ukraine. The Russian Defense Ministry hasn’t confirmed the Russian retreat from the villages.
But Semyon Pegov, a prominent Russian military blogger who goes under the nickname WarGonzo, acknowledged Russian troops had withdrawn from Blahodatne, Neskuchne and Makarivka, and said Ukrainian forces were trying to push forward along the banks of the Mokri Yaly river on Monday.
Alexandet Kots, military correspondent for Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, said Ukrainian forces were attempting to advance, despite heavy losses, toward the town of Staromlinovka, which sits on a strategic highway leading to the key city of Mariupol. Russian forces captured the Azov Sea port city over a year ago, after Ukrainian forces held out for several months in a grueling and desperate defense.
Separately Monday, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said least four civilians were killed and 16 others have been wounded by Russian shelling over the last 24 hours.
In Donetsk, Russian shelling hit nine towns and villages and left one civilian killed and two others wounded. Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko posted images of apartment buildings and a cultural center damaged by Russian strikes in the town of Avdiivka.
In Kharkiv, to the north, Russian forces pummeled several settlements with artillery, mortar and rocket fire, injuring at least three people, regional state administration chief Oleh Synehubov wrote on Telegram.
The reported Ukrainian advance comes as authorities on both sides of the front line pressed on with rescue and relocation efforts for civilians in the Kherson region driven from their homes by flooding from the breach of the Kakhovka dam last week.
The U.N. and other aid groups say access to fresh drinking water is a crucial need and the possible spread of water-borne disease a big worry.
On Sunday, a local official said three people were killed when Moscow’s troops opened fire on a boat evacuating people from Russian-occupied areas.
Late Sunday, Zelensky said envoys from the International Criminal Court have visited the region to investigate the disaster, which has driven thousands from their homes, and left at least 14 people dead.
“It is very important that the representatives of international justice have seen the consequences of this Russian act of terrorism with their own eyes and heard for themselves that Russian terror continues,” Zelensky said.
Ukrainian authorities have accused Russian forces, which controlled the area around the dam, of deliberately destroying it. Russian officials have blamed Ukrainian shelling for its destruction.