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Ukraine claims new gains in early phase of counteroffensive

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By Tom Balmforth

KYIV (Reuters) -Ukraine said on Monday its troops had recaptured a fourth village from Russian forces in a cluster of settlements in the southeast, where its forces have at last claimed gains in its long-anticipated counteroffensive.

The task of ending Moscow’s occupation of southern and eastern Ukraine is daunting, given Russia’s numerical superiority in men, ammunition and air power, and the many months it has had to build deep defensive fortifications.

On Monday, soldiers were seen in video holding the Ukrainian flag in the village of Storozheve, along the Mokri Yaly river which flows northward out of Russian-held territory. Reuters confirmed the location.

“The Ukrainian military liberated another settlement – Storozheve,” Kyiv’s defence ministry said in a Telegram post.

A day earlier Kyiv said its forces heading south had liberated three other nearby villages: Blahodatne, Neskuchne and Makarivka.

The push is already Ukraine’s most rapid advance for seven months, though still short of a major breakthrough, with Russia believed to have a strong line of fortifications further south.

At the furthest claimed by Kyiv, it adds up to five km (three miles) in total, still some 90 km (55 miles) from the Azov Sea coast and the prize of cutting Russia’s “land bridge” to Crimea, the peninsula Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.

A Ukrainian defence spokesman said Russia had blown up a dam on the Mokri Yaly to make it harder for Ukrainian forces to push farther south. That came less than a week after a huge dam was destroyed on the much larger Dnipro River, causing a humanitarian catastrophe in a swathe of the south.

Kyiv has also launched assaults at other locations along the huge front line, probing for Russian weaknesses, though it has given few details so far.

TWO DOZEN HEAVY BATTLES

Ukraine is banking on the tens of billions of dollars’ worth of weaponry, training and intelligence it has received from the West, combined with its own battlefield resolve, tactical nous and the motivation of driving an invader from its own land, to give it the edge.

It also knows it may have to show significant progress over the summer to maintain the same level of Western military, financial and political support, and one day have a chance of recovering from the loss and devastation inflicted by Moscow.

Ukraine’s armed forces said they had engaged in two dozen heavy battles in the previous 24 hours on the eastern front, near the town of Bakhmut, further south near Avdiivka and Maryinka, and further north near Bilohorivka.

They have not been providing similar detail about fighting on the southern front, where the main counteroffensive is expected.

Moscow has yet to officially acknowledge any Ukrainian advances. On Monday, Russia’s defence ministry repeated regular assertions of the past week that it had repelled attempted offensives in the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions, and said it had hit Ukrainian army reserve locations with long-range missiles.

But prominent Russian military bloggers said Ukrainian forces had in fact taken Blahodatne, Neskuchne and Makarivka, and were pushing on south.

Ukraine’s military also said on Monday it had liberated the village of Novodarivka in Zaporizhzhia region on June 4. Its forces repelled Russian efforts to retake the settlement, it said.

MAIN ATTACK ‘NOT YET STARTED’

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday said it was too soon to say exactly where Ukraine’s counteroffensive was going but that Washington was confident Kyiv would continue to have success.

Speaking at a press conference in Washington, Blinken said the United States was determined to maximize its support for Ukraine. A “robust” package of political and practical support for Ukraine, Blinken added, could be expected at the upcoming NATO summit in Vilnius.

Some Western military analysts said it was too early to draw conclusions about the counteroffensive, and the skirmishes so far may show Ukraine is still just testing Russian defences.

The U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War said Ukraine was attempting “an extraordinarily difficult tactical operation – a frontal assault against prepared defensive positions, further complicated by a lack of air superiority”, and that initial assaults should not be overinterpreted.

Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. forces in Europe, said the main attack, when it came, would feature several hundred tanks and infantry fighting vehicles.

“The offensive has clearly started, but not I think the main attack,” which will involve large, armoured formations, he wrote in an article for the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis.

Russia has yet to face this kind of onslaught, but its unconvincing battlefield performance in the 15 months since its full-scale invasion has led to frequent changes of command and public arguments with the private militias summoned to fight alongside the army.

President Vladimir Putin marked Russia’s national day with an award ceremony in the Kremlin, but made only glancing mention in his speech of the war he had unleashed, at enormous cost to his own citizens in lost lives, money and international relations.

“Today, at a difficult time for Russia, [feelings of patriotism and pride] unite our society even more strongly … [and] serve as a reliable support for our heroes taking part in the special military operation,” he said.

(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Tom Balmforth in Kyiv, Anna Pruchnicka in Gdansk and Lidia Kelly in Melbourne; Writing by Kevin Liffey and Alex Richardson; Editing by Peter Graff and Conor Humphries)

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