Ukrainian forces have stepped up artillery strikes and ground attacks in a wave of military activity that US officials said Monday could signal that Kiev’s long-planned counteroffensive against Russia has begun.
The fighting that began Sunday raged at several points on the front line, but further east of where many analysts expected Ukraine’s counteroffensive to begin. Even if it did start in that eastern zone, experts said, the battle would allow Kiev’s troops to try to achieve the same goal: push south toward the Sea of Azov and cut the land bridge linking occupied Crimea to mainland Russia.
On Tuesday morning, Ukrainian authorities said the Russian military had blown up a large dam on the Dnieper River, sending torrents of water downstream and potentially endangering populated areas and the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which draws cooling water from the dam’s reservoir.
Images confirmed the damage, but it was unclear who was responsible.
Ukrainian authorities have reported that the flooding has already begun. The Ministry of Internal Affairs said authorities in 10 towns and villages and in the city of Kherson were ordered to prepare for the evacuation of residents.
“The Russian army blew up the hydroelectric plant,” Alexander Prokudin, head of the military administration of the Kherson region, said on the Telegram messaging app. “The evacuation of dangerous areas has begun.
President Volodymyr Zelensky called an extraordinary meeting of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, the secretary of the council Alexy Danilov announced in a post on Twitter. Mr Zelensky condemned the damage to the dam as an act of terrorism and said it was further evidence that Russia should be “kicked out” of all Ukrainian lands.
“Only Ukraine’s victory will restore security,” he said in a statement. “Terrorists will not be able to stop Ukraine with water, missiles or anything else.
Last year, Mr Zelensky warned that Russia was preparing a “false flag” operation to blow up a hydroelectric dam in the south of the country in an attempt to blame Ukraine for the humanitarian and environmental disaster that could follow.
The explosion at the dam came after Russia’s defense ministry said on Monday it had launched a major Ukrainian operation at five locations in the eastern Donetsk region and had repulsed the attacks and inflicted casualties on Ukrainian forces. Moscow’s account could not be independently confirmed.
Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said on Telegram that Kiev’s forces in some areas were “going on the offensive” in the war that began when Russia invaded the neighboring country 15 months ago. But she did not say that this was a decisive new phase in the war.
“A defensive operation includes everything,” she said, “including counteroffensive actions.”
Pro-Russian bloggers noted that a heavy Ukrainian attack began on Monday morning near the town of Velika Novosilka in Donetsk. Mikhail Zvinchuk, a pro-Russian blogger who writes under the pseudonym Rybar, described intense fighting as Ukrainian soldiers with German Leopard tanks took control of the village of Novodonetske on Monday evening, a possible sign that Kiev had pushed its NATO-trained forces into the battle.
He said the fighting was taking place “under heavy artillery fire”.
Alexander Khodakovsky, the commander of a Russian proxy group, also described seeing Leopard tanks during the fighting near Novodonetsk, where, he said, Ukrainian forces had “probed our weak spots.”
Mr Zelensky, in his address on Monday night, expressed gratitude to “all our defenders who have given us the news we have been waiting for”.
“We see how hysterically Russia perceives our every step there, our every position,” he added. “The enemy knows that Ukraine will win. They see it. They feel it thanks to your strikes, soldiers, and in particular in the Donetsk region.
Ukraine has long said it would not make an official announcement about the start of its counteroffensive. And Ukrainian officials have not told their American counterparts exactly when the fighting will begin, but have provided them with a time frame for when they intend to begin the push against Russian forces. Sunday fell within that time frame, said U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.
U.S. officials based their assessment that Kiev most likely launched its counteroffensive in part on information from U.S. military satellites that detected increased movement from Ukrainian military positions. The satellites have infrared capabilities to track artillery fire and missile launches.
U.S. military analysts also said they believed Ukrainian units had launched an initial push to determine the positions and strength of Russian forces, a traditional tactic the Americans have trained Ukrainian forces to use.
A U.S. official said tests of potential weaknesses in Russian defenses, manpower and morale — what the U.S. military calls “power intelligence” — would likely last several days. If successful, the official said, the main thrust of the Ukrainian counteroffensive would become more apparent during that time.
U.S. and Ukrainian officials will also be closely watching how Russia responds to these front-line attacks.
At the White House, John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said he would not go beyond the statement of Ukrainian officials.
“What I can talk about is how hard we’ve worked to get them ready to be ready,” Mr Kirby said. “The president is confident that we’ve done everything we can over the last seven, eight months or more to make sure they have the opportunities to be successful.”
Much depends on Kiev’s ability to regain territory lost to Russia since the start of the war. Ukrainian officials say they must act as quickly as possible to free people living under Russian occupation and suffering abuses, including torture and the forced deportation of children to Russia.
Success could also bolster Ukraine’s push for longer-term commitments from the West for additional military aid and security guarantees. It could also strengthen Mr. Zelensky’s hand in any peace talks with Russia. A failure or lack of apparently rapid progress could complicate Kiev’s push for additional security guarantees at a NATO summit this summer.
The front line in southern and eastern Ukraine has been largely static for months, except for intense fighting in the eastern city of Bakhmut and operations by small Ukrainian units. In northeastern Ukraine, anti-Kremlin forces have been staging cross-border attacks into Russia since last month.
Weeks after Russian forces captured Bakhmut, Ukraine’s ground forces commander said Monday that Kiev’s troops were advancing near the destroyed city, although the extent of any gains was unclear.
Tanks from the amphibious assault brigade destroyed the enemy’s positions, Commander Gen. Alexander Sirski. The publication also said that Ukrainian forces had advanced into a small wooded area during an attack on enemy positions.
Ms Malyar, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, said on Telegram that Bakhmut remained the “epicenter of hostilities”.
“We’re moving on a pretty wide front there,” she continued, adding, “The enemy is on the defensive.”
One difficulty in determining the exact beginning of a counterattack is that the battle may begin with feints or diversions. And to mount a successful counterattack after months of planning, Ukrainian troops must move primarily over flat, unforgiving terrain and staunch Russian defenses.
Thousands of Ukrainian soldiers are expected to take part in the operation, including many equipped with newer and more advanced Western equipment such as armored personnel carriers and tanks.
Western officials have long believed the counteroffensive would focus on southern Ukraine as part of a strategy to cut the land bridge between western Russia and Crimea. But no matter where Ukraine attacks along a front line stretching hundreds of kilometers, Russia’s defense will be formidable.
Igor Girkin, a former pro-Russian paramilitary commander who goes by the nom de guerre Igor Strelkov on Telegram, said Russian forces had time to prepare for a Ukrainian counterattack — unlike last year, he wrote, when they created “ideal conditions” for Kiev offensive forces in Kharkiv.
But he said a significant breakthrough by Ukrainian forces in the Novodonetsk region would enable Kiev to drive a wedge between Donetsk and Mariupol in southern Ukraine and cut communications between the two Russian-controlled cities.
“If the enemy manages to penetrate deep enough and over a wide section of the front (which he is trying to do),” Mr. Girkin wrote, “then his advantage in numbers of units and formations will be difficult to stop.”
Even as action on the battlefield increased, diplomatic efforts to stop the war continued. Pope Francis has sent a cardinal to Ukraine on a two-day trip to discuss prospects for peace, the Vatican said Monday.
There was no immediate comment from the Ukrainian government, which expressed skepticism about the pope’s role as a potential mediator.
Reporting contributed by Maria Varenikova, Mark Santora, Adam Entus, Paul Sonne, Daniel Victor, Matthew Mpoke Big and Gaia Pianigiani.