Ukraine ramps up operations as dam destruction blame game unfolds

Kyiv’s long-planned counteroffensive appears to have begun as hostilities mount in Bakhmut and sabotage operations increase in occupied territories and Russia.

A surge in Ukrainian military operations, a flurry of cross-border raids by drones and armed groups and a mystery over who blew up a dam that flooded swathes of land along the Dnipro River.

Events are moving fast in Russia’s war on Ukraine, now in its 67th week.

The commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Oleksandr Syrskyi, said his soldiers were advancing in Bakhmut on Monday after a lull of a few days.

“The Bakhmut direction remains the epicentre of hostilities. There we are moving along a fairly wide front,” Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar confirmed on Telegram.

Maliar said Ukrainian troops advanced as much as 1,600 metres (5,250 feet) north of Bakhmut and as much as 700 metres (2,300 feet) to the south in a flanking manoeuvre.

Russia claimed victory in Bakhmut on May 21, and nine days later, Ukraine admitted the city was in Russian hands after 10 months of bloody warfare.

The Russian defence ministry said Ukrainian forces on Sunday launched a “large-scale offensive” across five sectors of the eastern front. Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russian forces repelled all the attacks and killed 3,175 Ukrainian soldiers in three days.

“Russian sources have previously attempted to paint Ukrainian counteroffensive actions as immediate failures and Russian sources are likely attempting to do the same with what they view as the start of the announced Ukrainian counteroffensive,” said the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, a think tank.

Ukraine did not announce its counterattack had begun, but Maliar posted a video on her Telegram channel on Sunday showing Ukrainian soldiers holding their fingers to their lips. Her caption read, “Plans love silence. There will be no announcement of the start.”


‘Distraction attack’

There were other signs of an imminent counterstrike.

On Friday, The Washington Post reported Ukrainian armed forces were carving out corridors through their own minefields in the southern region of Zaporizhzhia to enable units to go on the offensive.

And in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said “we are ready” for the counteroffensive.

“We firmly believe that we will succeed. I don’t know how long this will take. To be honest, it could go in different ways, completely different. But we are going to do this,” Zelenskyy said.

Asked what the counterattack would look like, US special forces commander Colonel Seth Krummrich told Al Jazeera, “I think you’ll get a spoiling attack or a distraction attack. And then you’ll get one or two major punches.

“But I think we have to be careful not to oversell the counteroffensive. It is only 12 battalions. There’s only so much you can do with that. I think we’re going to see small to midsize gains.”

Nine of Ukraine’s 12 mechanised battalions have been trained by NATO militaries and are expected to form the spearhead of the counterstrike.


An increase in sabotage operations may also have been a sign the counteroffensive was under way.

The Russian Volunteer Corps, an anti-Putin Russian paramilitary group operating from Ukraine, said the “second phase” of its operations began on June 1. It posted footage apparently showing its fighters on the outskirts of Shebekino, a Russian town 6km (2.8 miles) from the Ukrainian border.

It also claimed responsibility for a raid in Russia’s Belgorod region on May 24.

The Freedom of Russia Legion published geolocated footage showing its soldiers striking Russian positions near Novaya Tavolzhanka, a settlement 3.5km (1.7 miles) from the Ukrainian border, also on June 1.

Russia’s defence ministry claimed to have thwarted an “invasion”.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, who heads Russia’s Wagner mercenary group and is famously critical of the Russian defence establishment, threatened his forces would “go to Belgorod” without permission if the military command did not “liberate” the region’s border areas from pro-Ukrainian groups.

Ukrainian military intelligence spokesman Andriy Yusov indirectly claimed responsibility for drone attacks on the Moscow suburb of Ryubivka – where President Vladimir Putin lives – on May 30.

Imagining civil unrest in Russia itself, he said, “We have to bomb and destroy the civilian houses of the Muscovites themselves with artillery. … It’s all happening live, live. The whole world is watching.”

There were other smaller acts of sabotage.

Ukraine may have shelled the Russian-held port of Berdyansk in Zaporizhzhia, according to the region’s occupation governor. Vladimir Rogov posted video on Telegram on Friday showing a plume of grey smoke rising from one of the port structures.

That same day, a car bomb killed a Russian sympathiser in the town of Mykhailivka in the Zaporizhzhia region.

Café owner Sergey Didovoduk had registered as a candidate for upcoming mayoral elections sponsored by the Russian occupation. Ivan Fedorov, the Ukrainian mayor-in-exile of the town, said he was a “supporter of the Kremlin”.

Terror from the air and sea

Russia responded to Ukraine’s counterattacks by intensifying its air attacks against the civilian population.

Posted photographs suggested the headquarters of Ukraine’s military intelligence had been struck by several Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones over several days in late May.

Ukraine’s general staff said it destroyed all 10 Iskander ballistic missiles launched by Russian forces on June 1. Three days later, the general staff said its forces shot down four out of six Kh-101 and Kh-555 cruise missiles and six out of eight Shahed kamikaze drones.

On Tuesday, Ukraine’s air force said it downed all 35 air-launched cruise missiles fired in the middle of the night. The Kh-101 and Kh-555 missiles were all headed for the capital, Kyiv, it said.

Ukraine’s military intelligence said Russia is using up its most sophisticated missiles faster than it can replace them, but that seems to be changing. Maliar said Russia was transitioning its economy to a war footing and replenishing critical weapons.

“They are now setting up production and, in fact, replenishing their stock of missiles. With that dynamic, they cannot replenish as much as they have already spent, but they replenish them,” Maliar said.

The numbers appear to bear her out. Ukraine’s military said it destroyed 85 missiles and 169 drones over Kyiv in May – a record number.

But biggest incident of the war in recent weeks came on Tuesday when the Nova Kakhovka hydroelectric dam along the Dnipro river, which Russian forces have occupied for a year, burst.

Ukraine said occupation troops targeted the dam by placing explosives in its turbine room. “They blew up the internal structures of the Kakhov power plant,” Ukraine’s general staff said.

About 60,000 people live in the flood zone and 3,000 have already been evacuated.

Maliar said Russia meant “to stop the process of de-occupation by the defence forces of Ukraine and shift the vector of public attention from the events taking place in the Belgorod region”.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Ukraine fighters of sabotaging the dam because “Ukrainian armed forces are not achieving their goals” in large-scale offensive operations.

[Al Jazeera]

F-16s are coming

Zelenskyy said he received promises of F-16 jets from EU members meeting on the sidelines of the European Political Community summit.

“I’ve already gotten some insight from some of our European partners about the number — it’s powerful. I am very happy with the information I have received from some states,” Zelenskyy said.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said a coalition comprising the Netherlands, Denmark, United Kingdom and Belgium would start training Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16s “as soon as possible”.

German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said his country would decide whether to send Ukraine F-16 fighter jets within two weeks. “We are just in the phase of reconsidering and checking what is possible and what we want and can do,” Deutsche Welle quoted Pistorius as saying.

The Australian Financial Review said Australia was in talks with the United States about sending 41 Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18 Hornets to Ukraine following US approval.

An announcement could come as early as July when Australia will unveil another military aid package for Ukraine, according to Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov.

Ukraine has said at least six months of pilot training is necessary, so F-16s will not play a role in the current counterattack, suggesting more heavy ground fighting lies ahead.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria: “We do believe this counteroffensive will allow Ukraine to take strategically significant territory back,” but he did not suggest it would be a final blow to Russia.

“We have a few more years of this,” Krummrich, now vice president at Global Guardian, a security consultancy, agreed.

“All Ukraine has to do is keep the pressure on,” he said. “Don’t try to grab Crimea tomorrow. This Russian offensive will collapse under its own weight. It’s unsustainable.”

Source: Al Jazeera