Ukraine Claims First Gains, if Slight, in Counteroffensive

After a week of mostly silence about its newly launched campaign to drive Russian occupying forces from Ukrainian territory, Ukraine’s military on Sunday claimed its first small gains as fighting raged in at least three sectors of the front.

The military operation is expected to be vast, but for the moment it appears to consist mostly of probing attacks and feints.

At least three of them are said to have paid off.

Ukraine’s 68th Brigade posted video on Facebook of its soldiers raising the nation’s blue-and-yellow flag over the village of Blahodatne, in the eastern region of Donetsk. A deputy defense minister said Ukraine’s forces had also taken the nearby village of Makarivka, and the Ukrainian Volunteer Army said it had reclaimed a neighboring settlement, Neskuchne.

“We are driving the enemy from our homeland,” an unidentified soldier says in the video. “It’s the most pleasant feeling. Ukraine will be victorious.”

The claims could not immediately be independently verified, and their defiant tone notwithstanding, they were made in the face of unquestionable losses for Ukraine over the past week of both troops and equipment as the counteroffensive has begun to take shape.

It was also not clear whether the villages were beyond the first lines of Russian defenses — meaning it remains to be seen whether the announcements signaled that Ukraine had managed to break through them.

But after months of speculation, one thing did appear clear over the weekend: The long-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive is underway, if not fully. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said as much on Saturday during a surprise visit from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada. “At what stage, I will not disclose in detail,” Mr. Zelensky said.

However limited it is for the moment, the assault has been fierce, with fighting concentrated along the front in the south and the east. The Ukrainians, outfitted with newly acquired tanks and armored vehicles, are trying both to regain ground and to persuade their Western allies that theirs is a fight still worth supporting.

In recent days, Ukrainian rockets and artillery have hit four Russian command centers, six areas of concentration of personnel, weapons and military equipment, three ammunition depots and five enemy artillery units, the Ukrainian military said. The assertions could not be verified independently.

But any gains Ukraine makes against the entrenched Russian forces are likely to be costly and bring high casualties on the Ukrainian side.

In 15 months of war, Ukraine’s military has largely refrained from discussing its own casualty numbers and losses, but the evidence suggests that the renewed fighting has not been easy.

American officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that Ukrainian forces had suffered losses over the past week, as had the Russians, but would not quantify the casualties. At least three German-made Leopard 2 tanks and eight American-made Bradley fighting vehicles were recently abandoned by Ukrainian troops or destroyed, based on videos and photographs posted by pro-war Russian bloggers and verified by The New York Times.

Early Sunday, the assault on Blahodatne initially stalled at the edge of the village, according to Valeriy Shershen, a spokesman for the Ukrainian military in the Donetsk region. Russian forces were firing from the village’s school and from a cultural club, he said, preventing any advance.

Then the Ukrainian assault group attacked both buildings simultaneously, entering the cultural club by blowing a hole in a wall and climbing in to fight room to room, Mr. Shershen said. His account could not be independently confirmed, but the video released by Ukraine showed its soldiers hanging a flag from an upper-story window of what appears to be a partly destroyed school. The New York Times has not independently verified the video.

There was no comment from Russia’s Ministry of Defense, which has asserted that it repelled Ukrainian attacks in the first week of fighting.

But the Ukrainian Volunteer Army’s assertion Sunday that it had recaptured Neskuchne a day earlier came shortly after an influential Russian military commentator, Igor Girkin, said on social media that Russian forces had withdrawn from the village.

The three settlements that Ukraine claimed to have taken are spread over roughly three miles. Further advances to the south from the area could cut rail and road links between Russia and the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula, an objective of the counteroffensive.

In Russia, tensions were visible on Sunday between two arms of the military offensive against Ukraine. The leader of the Wagner private military company, who has been openly critical of Russian military leaders, issued a statement that his group would not comply with an order that it sign a formal contract with the Defense Ministry by July 1.

The blunt refusal was just the latest flashpoint in a long-running feud between the Wagner leader, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, and Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu that has put a spotlight on the disunity and infighting over the prosecution of the war.

Still even as he rebuffed Mr. Shoigu, Mr. Prigozhin made clear that he remained loyal to President Vladimir V. Putin. “Wagner is absolutely completely subordinate to the interests of the Russian Federation and the supreme commander in chief,” he wrote.

Maria Varenikova and Paul Sonne contributed reporting.

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