A series of clashes on the front line in Ukraine has fuelled speculation that a long-awaited counter-offensive could be under way.
Kyiv’s forces “in some areas… are shifting to offensive actions”, the deputy defence minister, Hanna Maliar, said on Monday, though she denied this was “fighting of local importance” rather than a full-out assault.
The commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Oleksandr Syrskyi, reported that troops were “moving forward” near Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine and had made progress “during an assault on enemy positions” in the region.
US intelligence recorded a surge in missile launches and artillery fire that indicates a swell in movement, The New York Times reported, with analysts suggesting that Ukraine was seeking to test the strength of the Russian frontline in occupied areas across the south and east of the country.
There were unverified reports from Russian separatists that Western-supplied Leopard tanks had been deployed for the first time in the east of Ukraine.
Success in reclaiming territory is thought to be critical not only for morale, but also demonstrating that future commitments of military aid will be effective as the 15-month-old conflict drags on, with few major advances made by either side made in recent months.
Russia’s defence ministry claimed to have repelled a “large-scale” Ukrainian assault involving six mechanised and two tank battalions in the south of the Donetsk region on Sunday, releasing videos that it said showed several Ukrainian armoured vehicles in a field blowing up after being hit.
Geo-location efforts suggest the clips were filmed at Velyka Novosilka, a village west of Vuhledar in the southern part of Donetsk province – as Russia claimed it had killed 250 Ukrainian soldiers and destroyed 16 tanks, three infantry fighting vehicles and 21 armoured combat vehicles.
But Ukraine’s military commanders brushed off the claims as “false information” intended to “demoralise Ukrainians and mislead their own population”, adding that “they have prepared old videos and photos that show destroyed equipment, the dead and prisoners.
Ms Maliar suggested the Kremlin was seeking to “divert attention” from losses around Bakhmut.
Armed forces videos from Bakhmut show Russian positions under fire – while the Russian mercenary leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said Ukrainian forces had retaken part of the settlement of Berkhivka, north of Bakhmut, calling it a “disgrace”.
Prigozhin’s private Wagner army captured Bakhmut last month after the longest battle of the war and handed its positions there to regular Russian troops. He has increasingly clashed with the Russian chain of command, however, and tensions have flared up between the two groups.
Ukraine has enough weapons to begin a counter-offensive, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told Reuters on Monday, though he would not say whether the counter-offensive had started – adding that the most important thing was not when it started, but that it ended in Ukrainian victory.
Amid the speculation, UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly made a surprise visit to Kyiv on Monday where he pledged British support to Volodymyr Zelensky.
“As Ukraine continues its sustained fightback against Russia, I was able to see for myself the true horrors and devastation of what Russia has wreaked on this sovereign state,” said Mr Cleverly.
“Ukraine will win this war and can count on our support.”