By HANNA ARHIROVA and DASHA LITVINOVA (Associated Press)
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Fierce fighting raged Thursday in southeastern Ukraine, where a Western official said Kyiv has launched a major push and Russian President Vladimir Putin said “hostilities have intensified significantly.”
Battles in recent weeks have taken place on multiple points along the over 1,000-kilometer (600-mile) front line as Ukraine wages a counteroffensive with Western-supplied weapons and Western-trained troops against Russian forces who invaded 17 months ago.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy congratulated his troops on reclaiming control of a village, while Putin praised Russian troops “heroism” in repelling attacks in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region.
Putin insisted on state TV that the Ukrainian troops’ push “wasn’t successful” and charged that they suffered heavy casualties, although it was not possible to independently verify his claim. Putin was in St. Petersburg at a summit of African leaders.
Ukrainian troops have made only incremental gains since launching a counteroffensive in early June, and Putin has repeatedly claimed Ukraine has suffered heavy losses, without offering evidence.
Ukraine has committed thousands of troops in the region in recent days, said a Western official who was not authorized to comment publicly on the matter.
A U.S. official said Ukraine has begun to commit troops from the 10th Corps, although it’s not certain all of its units are moving into the fight. Ukraine had been holding the 10th Corps in reserve, with the expectation it would be used to exploit gaps or soft spots the ground forces opened up. Those additional new forces would be used to take advantage of places where Ukrainian troops have been able to break through some of Russia’s defenses.
The U.S. official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing military operations.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Pentagon reporters last week that Ukraine was “preserving their combat power” and that a “significant” amount of it had not yet entered action as Ukrainian forces slowly and deliberately worked their way through the Russian minefields.
It was unclear how the current effort differs from previous ones by the Ukrainian military to break through deeply entrenched Russian defenses. The Russian army has set up vast minefields to stymie Ukrainian advances and used combat aircraft and loitering munitions to strike Ukrainian armor and artillery.
Zelenskyy posted a video Thursday in which a group of Ukrainian soldiers said they had taken control of the village of Staromaiorske in the Donetsk region next to the Zaporizhzhia province. “Our South! Our guys! Glory to Ukraine!” Zelenskyy declared.
Russian military bloggers have confirmed that Ukrainian forces have taken part of the village that was the focus of Ukraine’s attacks in recent days. If Russian defenses in the area collapse, it would open the way for the Ukrainian forces to push southward toward the coast.
Ukrainian authorities have kept operational details of the counteroffensive under wraps, and they have released scant information about its progress.
However, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Wednesday that troops are advancing toward the city of Melitopol in the Zaporizhizhia region.
The seizure of Melitopol near the Sea of Azov would be a major success for Ukraine, which hopes to punch through the land corridor between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, illegally annexed by Moscow in 2014. That could split Russian forces into two and cut supply lines to units farther west. Russia currently controls the whole Sea of Azov coast.
The Institute of Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, reported that Ukrainian forces launched “a significant mechanized counteroffensive operation” in western Zaporizhzhia on Wednesday and “appear to have broken through certain pre-prepared Russian defensive positions.”
The reinvigorated Ukrainian push comes in the wake of Russian military and political turmoil in June that saw Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner private military company, stage a short-lived rebellion that posed the gravest threat to Putin in his 23-year rule.
The mercenaries have withdrawn from the battlefield in Ukraine, where they played a pivotal role in capturing the stronghold of Bakhmut following the war’s longest battle. Thousands of Wagner troops have reportedly deployed to Belarus to help train its troops before moving to Africa.
Zelenskyy, meanwhile, visited the city of Dnipro, along the Dnieper River to the north of Zaporizhzhia, meeting with military commanders to discuss air defenses, ammunition supplies and regional recruitment.
He also visited a medical facility caring for the wounded from the front, thanking the staff and emphasizing the importance of their work in saving the lives. A recent increase in wounded at a Dnipro hospital hinted that the tempo of fighting had increased.
In what appeared to be a precautionary move, Russia’s Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, prohibited civilian access to the Arabat Spit in Crimea, a narrow strip of land that links the peninsula to the partially occupied Kherson region. The open-ended ban is needed to contain security threats, the FSB said in a statement quoted by Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti.
U.S. officials, who have provided Kyiv with weapons and intelligence, declined to comment publicly on the latest developments, though they have previously urged patience as Ukraine seeks to grind down Russian positions.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said during a visit to Papua New Guinea that Kyiv’s effort to retake land seized by Russia since its full-scale invasion in February 2022 would be tough and long, with successes and setbacks.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said “an intense battle” is taking place but declined to provide details.
“We believe that tools, the equipment, the training, the advice that many of us have shared with Ukrainians over many months puts them in good position to be successful on the ground in recovering more of the territory that Russia has taken from Ukraine,” Blinken said in New Zealand.
Meanwhile, a missile strike on Ukraine’s southern Odesa region killed one civilian and further damaged its port infrastructure in the latest attack since Moscow broke off a grain export agreement, Odesa Gov. Oleh Kiper said.
The attack used Kalibr cruise missiles launched from the Black Sea, he said.
Ukraine’s air force said it intercepted 36 Russian missiles launched from Tu-95MS strategic bombers.
Litvinova reported from Tallinn, Estonia. Lolita C. Baldor and Aamer Madhani in Washington, Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, and Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand, contributed.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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