Ukraine has signaled that the main thrust of its counter-offensive against Russian troops is yet to come – key forces are not yet deployed and the current operation is designed to “prepare the battlefield”.
Ukraine says it has retaken eight villages in the early stages of its most ambitious attack since Russia’s sweeping invasion 16 months ago, but President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said this week that gains have been “slower than desired”.
Looking at the pace of Ukraine’s advance, three senior officials sent the clearest signal yet that the main part of the counteroffensive has not yet begun.
“Offensive operations of the Armed Forces of Ukraine continue in a number of areas. Formation operations are underway to prepare the battlefield,” Presidential Advisor Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter.
“The counteroffensive is not a new season of a Netflix show. You don’t have to expect action and buy popcorn.”
Deputy Secretary of Defense Hanna Maliar said the “key events” of the counteroffensive “lay ahead.”
“And the main blow is yet to come. In fact, some of the reserves – these are staged things – will be activated later,” Ms Maliar told Ukrainian TV.
Although the advances reported by Ukraine this month are the first notable battlefield successes in seven months, Ukrainian forces have yet to advance to the main lines of defense that Russia has spent months preparing.
“I want to say that our main forces are not yet engaged in combat, and we are now looking for weak points in the enemy’s defenses. It’s all ahead of us,” Oleksandr Syrskyi, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, told Guardians.
Moscow has tried to portray the Ukrainian counteroffensive as a failure. It said Kiev’s armed forces had suffered heavy casualties, while Ukraine said Russia had lost many soldiers in heavy fighting since the counterattack began.
Ukraine has prepared new military units for its long-awaited counteroffensive, including 12 new brigades, but only three of them have been seen in action so far. It has also received a number of weapons from its western allies to help it retake Russian-held territory.
Mr Podolyak said the time it took Ukraine to persuade its western partners to provide the necessary weapons gave the Russian military an opportunity to step in and strengthen its defenses.
“The breakthrough of the Russian front today requires a reasonable and balanced approach. A soldier’s life is the most important value for Ukraine today,” he said.
Elsewhere, the UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) said in its daily intelligence report that Russia is increasing the number of “trained marine mammals” at the Black Sea Fleet’s main base in Sevastopol, including dolphins, to seek out and “fend off” enemy divers. It added that the Russian Navy is investing in major improvements to the base on Russia’s annexed Crimea peninsula. Kiev says one of the goals of its counter-offensive is to regain control of all Russian-held country.
The MoD said the changes “include at least four layers of netting and barriers over the port entrance.”
It added: “In recent weeks, these defenses have also most likely been reinforced by increased numbers of trained marine mammals.”
“Images show a near doubling of the floating mammal enclosures in the harbor, most likely housing bottlenose dolphins.
“The Navy also uses beluga whales and seals in Arctic waters. Russia has trained animals for a number of missions, but the animals housed in the port of Sevastopol are most likely intended to repel enemy divers.”
In Kyiv, Mr Zelenskyi said after an investigation into the state of Ukraine’s air raid shelters, there will be personnel changes after three people were locked out on the street and killed in an airstrike.
Mr. Zelenskyi said he chaired a session of the National Security and Defense Council and spoke about the security of the Ukrainian people, judicial reforms and Ukraine’s accession to the European Union.
“In general, today we reviewed the shelter situation in the regions, districts and cities most terrorized by the enemy,” Mr. Zelenskyy said in a video published on the news app Telegram.
“The conclusions are disappointing. Almost all over the country. The situation is particularly cynical and shameful in the cities, which have significant financial resources but unfortunately have other priorities. Personnel decisions are made.”
Mr. Zelenskyj ordered all air raid shelters to be checked after the deaths of three people who rushed to a Kiev air raid shelter that would not open. Her death on June 1 sparked public outrage.
The President also said that Ukraine’s top security chiefs and senior government officials were discussing how to advance judicial and anti-corruption reforms, which are seen as crucial by Ukraine’s western partners, international financial institutions and investors.
Mr Zelenskyi said the council wanted to strengthen criminal liability for corruption offenses in the judiciary.