Ukraine’s military is steadily pushing back Russian forces across two heavily fortified fronts, attempting to encircle weary Russian troops as it recaptures territory claimed by Vladimir Putin.
Some heavy Ukrainian armour was en route to the eastern Donbas region, where troops were moving from Lyman, a railway hub won back three days ago, to support an uninterrupted advance towards the town of Lysychansk, held by Russia for more than three months.
Some 600km to the south, Ukrainian soldiers forced well-entrenched Russian troops into what a US official referred to as “defensive crouch”. The heavy fighting has continued in towns like Dudchany, crucial stops en route to the shipbuilding city of Kherson, which fell into Russian hands days into the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February.
The two simultaneous advances have given Ukraine swaths of strategic territory, and shown its ability to repurpose captured Russian weapons and newly arrived western weapons against an exhausted enemy still waiting for newly mobilised troops.
Ukrainian officials have been wary of discussing operational details. But western allies briefed on the advance have described the operations which target individual Russian formations thinly stretched over vast distances with an overwhelming force that travels rapidly through the night.
“In the vicinity of Kherson, we continue to see deliberate and calibrated operations by the Ukrainians as they continue their offensive,” a senior US military official said. “The [Russians] are fighting obviously, but they are in a defensive approach.”
In the east, the Ukrainian military is “picking off the comparatively easier targets to seize some initiative”, another western diplomat said, avoiding sending more troops to get bogged down in cities like Bakhmut, where they have faced off against Russian artillery for months without much effect.
Russia is attempting to bolster its forces at the front lines with what Putin has called a “partial” mobilisation of the army’s reserves.
Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, said on Tuesday that Russia had already called up 200,000 men.
The measure, however, has proved deeply unpopular at home, prompting hundreds of thousands of people to leave the country and leaving the Kremlin to shift the blame on local officials.
The movement on both fronts has been gruelling, with no clear updates on casualties on either side. That compares with a counter-offensive in the north-east last month, where the Ukrainians pushed nearly all Russian forces back to the border within days. “In the north-east the Ukrainians moved through Russian defences like Swiss cheese, as opposed to the south where it will be more difficult,” a second US military official said.
The Ukrainian offensive in the south towards Kherson has clearly “gained some momentum”, according to a western official, adding that even if it became militarily untenable for Russian forces it was “unlikely that the Russian leadership would sanction a full pullout . . . for political reasons”.
As result, the official added, the “situation in the south could become increasingly messy” with an estimated 20,000 Russian troops on the west bank of the Dnipro potentially growing “desperate . . . with their backs to the river”.
The setbacks have proved inescapable on Russian state television, which has attempted to blame Russia’s losses on western support for Ukraine.
“Why do we advance metre by metre when they advance village by village? Why are things going better for them now?” Olga Skabeyeva, host of a news talk show, asked on Tuesday.
Igor Girkin, a former intelligence officer who led Russia’s initial incursion in the Donbas in 2014 and has been highly critical of the army’s conduct of the invasion, said on Tuesday that Ukraine “had the advantage in everything and is even using aviation” on the southern front, adding that there were reports of further Ukrainian progress in the east.
Russian forces along both fronts “are exhausted”, Serhiy Kazan, an adviser to the defence ministry said, after months of Ukrainian attacks on their command centres, resupply lines and weapons caches by US-supplied Himars, guided rockets that reached deep behind the front lines.
“They are not operating in a co-ordinated fashion because we chose the right tactics to destroy their communications and supply lines,” Kuzan said.
The Ukrainian advance came as Putin prepared on Tuesday to sign into law the annexation of four Ukrainian territories into the Russian Federation. Ukrainian troops have already pushed the frontline deep into two of those territories, and are gaining momentum while Russia struggles to train, arm and mobilise newly conscripted troops.
US intelligence has not seen a “large-scale” movement of Russian forces despite the recent battlefield losses, one official said. The only part of the country where Russia was currently mounting an offence was in Bakhmut, in the mineral-rich, eastern Donbas region.