KYIV, Ukraine – An increase in fighting on the southern front line and Ukraine’s claim of new attacks on Russian positions fueled speculation on Tuesday that a long-awaited counter-offensive had begun in an attempt to turn the tide of the war.
Officials in Kyiv, however, cautioned against over-optimism in a war that has seen similar expectations of a reversal of fortunes before.
Although independent verification of battlefield movements has been extremely difficult, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in an intelligence report that since early Monday, “several brigades of the Ukrainian Armed Forces have increased the weight of artillery fire in front-line sectors in southern Ukraine.” “
Attention has focused on the potential damage Ukraine may have inflicted on Russian positions around the port city of Kherson, a major economic hub near the Black Sea and one of Moscow’s prized possessions, since the invasion began just over half a year ago.
Ukraine’s presidential office reported on Tuesday that “powerful explosions continued throughout the day and night in the Kherson region. Heavy fighting is taking place in practically the entire strategic area. Ukrainian forces, the report said, had destroyed a number of ammunition depots in the region and all major bridges across the Dnieper River, which are vital for delivering supplies to Russian troops.
Russia’s state-run TASS news agency reported five explosions rocked Kherson on Tuesday morning – blasts likely caused by operational air defense systems.
The Ukrainian Army’s Operation South Command also reported destroying a pontoon crossing the Dnieper that Russian forces were deploying and striking a dozen command posts in several areas of Kherson Oblast with artillery fire.
“The most important thing is the work of the Ukrainian artillery on the bridges that the Russian army can no longer use,” Ukrainian independent military analyst Oleg Zhdanov told The Associated Press.
“Even the barges have been destroyed. The Russians cannot maintain forces near Kherson – this is the most important thing.
On Monday, Natalya Gumenyuik of the southern command center told Ukrainian publication Liga.Net that Kyiv forces had launched offensive operations “in many directions in our area of responsibility and broke through the enemy’s first line of defense.” The statement quickly made headlines after weeks of reports that Ukrainian forces were preparing an offensive there and after Ukrainian attacks on the Kherson region intensified.
Zhdanov said that Russia has three lines of defense in the Kherson region, and the breach of the first is a signal only of “isolated offensive actions of the Ukrainian army.”
In recent months, the war has reached a stalemate, with casualties mounting and the local population bearing the brunt of the suffering during the relentless shelling in the east, as well as in the wider area around the Russian-occupied Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, which was also at the heart of the battle in Ukraine.
Amid concerns that the plant could be damaged, leading to a radioactive leak, a UN nuclear watchdog team has arrived in Kyiv and is further preparing a mission to protect the Russian-occupied plant from a nuclear disaster.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for International Atomic Energy Agency experts who will visit the plant in a country where the 1986 Chernobyl disaster spewed radiation across the region, shocking the world and fueling a global retreat from nuclear power.
“Without exaggeration, this mission will be the most difficult in the history of the IAEA,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said.
Complicating an already complex task is the inability of both sides in the war to agree on much more than allowing the team to go there. Ukraine and Russia accuse each other of repeatedly shelling the wider region around the nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest.
Read more: TIME interview with Volodymyr Zelensky
Nikopol, which is just across the Dnieper River from the Zaporizhia plant, came under heavy shelling again, local authorities said, with damage to a bus station, shops and a children’s library.
The dangers of an accident are now so high that officials have begun handing out anti-radiation iodine tablets to nearby residents.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky responded to speculation that his forces had launched a major counter-offensive, asking in a video address on Monday evening: “Does anyone want to know what our plans are? You won’t hear specifics from someone really responsible. Because this is war.” His adviser Mihailo Podoliak warned against “super sensational reports” about a counteroffensive.
On the other hand, the Moscow-appointed regional leader of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, rejected the Ukrainian claim of an advance in the Kherson region as false. He said Ukrainian forces suffered heavy casualties in the area. And for its part, the Ministry of Defense of Russia stated that its forces inflicted heavy losses in personnel and military equipment of the Ukrainian troops.
Kherson Oblast is just north of the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014 to kick off a conflict that was frozen until the February 24 invasion.
Yuras Karmanau contributed from Tallinn, Estonia.
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