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Ukraine’s ‘silent’ counteroffensive worries Russian military with reported attacks across front

Alarm was spreading among Russian military correspondents and commanders on Monday with reports of several Ukrainian advances using Western firepower, potentially marking the onset of a much-anticipated offensive to liberate occupied territory.

Russia’s defence ministry claimed to have repelled a series of attacks in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and inflicted heavy losses, but reports from the front were more pessimistic.

Alexander Khodakovsky, head of Russia’s Vostok Battalion, said a Ukrainian incursion around the town of Vuhledar in Donetsk with Nato equipment had pierced defensive lines and advanced two kilometres.

“The situation is grave – the enemy, having found our weaknesses, is stepping up efforts. For the first time we saw Leopards in our tactical area,” he wrote on Telegram, referring to the German tanks supplied to Ukraine in March that have been held back until now.

“The enemy went with large forces,” said military blogger Yuri Podolyaka, citing advances by a battalion supported by tanks. “This is not a reconnaissance, but a serious offensive operation – it has really begun.”

Beyond Vuhledar, Ukrainian operations were reported in Zaporizhzhia to the south and around Kramatorsk to the north. Ukrainian fighters took control of territory on the outskirts of Bakhmut, the devastated Donbas city captured by Russian forces after nine months of fighting, according to Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin.

But there was no celebration from the Ukrainian side, and no official comment beyond a warning to be wary of Russian propaganda.

Silence has been the watchword for Kyiv as it builds up to a critical strike, with President Volodymyr Zelensky saying Ukraine is now “ready”.

The army released a video over the weekend of its soldiers requesting quiet from supporters as Ukraine seeks to catch the enemy off guard. Friendly conflict monitors have been asked to avoid revealing information that could give Russia a window into the offensive plans, and media blocked from visiting sensitive areas.

The varied locations of Ukraine’s advances are intended to disguise the main lines of attack, an approach effectively employed before the successful push through Kharkiv last autumn.

Monday’s operations – and the use of Western equipment – appear to have marked an escalation, but could still fall into the category of “shaping operations” to soften up enemy defences rather than the start of a march beyond the point of no return.

“Deception with regards to the time and place of major attacks to achieve maximum surprise effect is as vital a component of success as training,” says Mykola Bielieskov of the National Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank in Kyiv that advises Ukraine’s leadership.

Recent attacks inside Russia also appear designed to disorientate the enemy. As a spokesman for the Freedom of Russia legion – a group of Russian defectors fighting for Ukraine – said, the raid on Belgorod sought to divert Russian troops from defensive positions in Ukraine, leaving them vulnerable. The cross-border raids have also served to undermine Russian morale with scathing criticism of the military leadership for failing to defend Russian territory.

Ukraine has also made use of new long-range capabilities to strike targets deep behind enemy lines such as command posts, air defences, and fuel depots in shaping operations.

The detailed planning and multi-layered approach is a reflection of the size of the task. A pause in offensive operations has allowed Ukraine to train new units and adapt to western weaponry. It has also allowed Russia to build up formidable defences across the front, with minefields interspersed with anti-tank fortifications and networks of trenches to block advancing vehicles.

US soldiers confronted similar, if less entrenched, obstacles in Iraq. But Ukraine must confront them without a dominant air force, relying on ingenuity and planning as much as firepower.

Ukrainian strategists acknowledge that the offensive presents an opportunity that may not arise again. If this advance fails to deliver significant gains, after months of preparations and accumulation of weapons from the West, it will be some time before Ukraine’s military is ready for another – by which time foreign aid and political support may have peaked.

Ukraine will eventually be forced to break cover when it deploys the full power of the western-equipped units it has been training.

But for now, Kyiv will let its soldiers do the talking on the battlefield and keep the Russians guessing.

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