Russia's Wagner says Ukraine makes gains; Kyiv says counteroffensive yet to begin
Ukrainian service members from a 110th Separate Mechanised Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, prepare to fire a self-propelled howitzer "Dana", amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near the town of Avdiivka in Donetsk region, Ukraine May 9, 2023. REUTERS/Sofiia Gatilova
(Reuters) - President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukraine's long-awaited counteroffensive against Russia's invasion force had yet to start, even as his generals claimed some of their biggest battlefield successes in months.
Kyiv says it has pushed Russian forces back over the past several days near the eastern city of Bakhmut in local assaults, while a full-blown counteroffensive involving tens of thousands of troops and hundreds of Western tanks is still being prepared.
"We still need a bit more time," Zelenskiy said in an interview with European broadcasters.
Ukrainian forces had already received enough equipment from Western allies for their campaign but were waiting for the full complement of armoured vehicles to arrive to reduce their casualties, Zelenskiy said.
In a major step up in Western military support for Ukraine, Britain announced it was sending Storm Shadow cruise missiles that would give Kyiv the ability to strike targets deep behind Russian lines.
"The key here is to give Ukraine that capability. To defend itself," Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told parliament in London.
Western countries including the United States had previously held back from providing long range weapons for fear of provoking Russian retaliation. Wallace said Britain had weighed the risk.
The war in Ukraine is at a turning point, with Kyiv poised to unleash its new counterstrike after six months of keeping its forces on the defensive, while Russia mounted a huge winter offensive that failed to capture significant territory.
Moscow's main target for months has been Bakhmut, which it has yet to fully capture despite the bloodiest ground combat in Europe since World War Two.
The head of Russia's Wagner private army, which has led the fight in Bakhmut, has acknowledged Ukrainian gains against regular Russian forces on the city's flanks for several days, while complaining of a lack of support for his men.
Ukrainian operations were "unfortunately, partially successful", Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin said on social media on Thursday, calling Zelenskiy's assertion that the counteroffensive had not yet begun "deceptive".
Prigozhin said on Tuesday that a Russian brigade had fled from the trenches, giving up a swathe of land southwest of Bakhmut. A Ukrainian unit claimed to have routed the brigade, destroying two of its companies.
The commander of Ukraine's ground forces said on Wednesday Russian forces had retreated in places by as much as two km. Ukraine has boasted of few similar advances since its last big offensive last November.
Russia's military has not acknowledged the setback. In its regular daily briefing on Thursday, the Defence Ministry said Russian troops were continuing to assault the western part of Bakhmut, with paratroopers pinning down Ukrainian army units on the flanks.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov acknowledged that the war was "very difficult". He said he had no doubt that Bakhmut "will be captured and will be kept under control".
Reuters could not independently verify the situation on the ground in Bakhmut.
Western allies are sending hundreds of tanks and armoured vehicles to Ukraine for its counteroffensive and have trained thousands of Ukrainian troops abroad.
In anticipation of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, Russia has resumed air strikes on Ukraine over the past two weeks after a lull of nearly two months. Moscow says Ukraine has used drones to strike occupied areas and Russian territory near the border.
In the latest report, the governor of Russia's Bryansk region bordering Ukraine said a drone had hit a fuel storate depot. No one was hurt. Kyiv does not comment on such incidents.
Some Ukrainian officials have tried to manage expectations for their counteroffensive, cautioning against expecting a swift repeat of Ukraine's big military successes last year, when it pushed Russian forces back from Kyiv's outskirts and recaptured swathes of occupied territory in unexpected breakthroughs.
Russia is determined to defend the sixth of Ukraine's territory that it has occupied and claims to have annexed forever. In the six months since the last major Ukrainian advance it has built extensive fortifications along the front. Penetrating that with an armoured assault would be far more complicated than anything Ukraine's forces have attempted yet.
(Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Angus MacSwan)