A senior presidential adviser has told Ukrainians not to expect rapid gains, after his country began a long-awaited counteroffensive aiming to retake the southern province of Kherson from Russian forces.
Ukrainian troops had broken through Russian defences in several areas of the frontline near Kherson city, Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy claimed.
Arestovych said forces were also shelling ferries that Moscow uses to supply Russian-occupied territory on the west bank of the Dnieper river.
But in an update posted to his official Telegram account, Arestovych cautioned against any expectations of a quick win, describing the offensive as a “slow operation to grind the enemy”. “Of course, many would like a large-scale offensive with news about the capture by our military of a settlement in an hour,” he wrote. “But we don’t fight like that … Funds are limited.”
Unverifiable videos of explosions have been posted on Telegram groups in Kherson city and the neighbouring occupied town of Nova Kakhovka. Ukraine’s southern command, meanwhile, said Russia had suffered heavy losses in the last 24 hours, both in terms of men and equipment.
Ukraine first announced the beginnings of a southern offensive in July. The Guardian could not independently verify the assertions.
Zelenskiy did not address the counteroffensive specifically during his Monday evening address, but said: “The occupiers should know: we will oust them to the border. To our border, the line of which has not changed.”
Those who surrendered would be treated under the Geneva conventions, he said, adding: “If they do not listen to me, they will deal with our defenders, who will not stop until they liberate everything that belongs to Ukraine.”
Ukrainian troops had taken back four villages after breaking through the frontline in three places, CNN reported, quoting a Ukrainian military source, with the main target being Kherson. The operation began with heavy shelling of Russian positions at the rear, forcing Russians to flee, the source was quoted as saying.
Sergiy Khlan, a local deputy and adviser to Kherson’s regional governor told Ukraine’s Priamyi TV channel that a “powerful artillery attack on enemy positions in … the entire territory of the occupied Kherson region” was launched on Monday.
Russia’s defence ministry acknowledged a new Ukrainian offensive had been launched in the Mykolaiv and Kherson regions but said it had failed and the Ukrainians had suffered significant casualties, the RIA news agency reported. The “enemy’s offensive attempt failed miserably”, it said.
A Ukrainian barrage of rockets left the Russian-occupied town of Nova Kakhovka just east of the city of Kherson without water or power, officials at the Russian-appointed local authority later told the outlet.
The battlefield reports could not be independently verified. In an intelligence note, Britain’s Ministry of Defence said although it was not yet possible to confirm the extent of Ukrainian advances, its army had increased artillery fire “in frontline sectors across southern Ukraine”.
It added that Ukraine was using long-range precision strikes to disrupt Russian resupply lines.
Ukraine’s offensive in the south comes after weeks of stalemate in a war that has killed thousands, displaced millions, destroyed cities and caused a global energy and food crisis amid unprecedented economic sanctions.
On Monday, a mission from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) arrived in Kyiv, according to Ukraine’s foreign ministry. The mission is to travel to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Russian-occupied territory for an inspection and to give technical assistance. The plant has been damaged by fighting. Russia captured it in early March but it is still run by Ukrainian staff.
The world was on edge last week when fighting cut off vital electricity supplies to the plant, disconnecting it from the grid for the first time in history.
The IAEA mission will spend four days at the plant, leaving on Saturday, according to the Wall Street Journal. It remains to be seen if the mission will be able to travel, as shelling continues in and around the nuclear plant. Both sides trade blame for the attacks. Ukraine claims they are false-flag attacks.
Ukraine’s state nuclear agency, Energoatom, said on Tuesday that the plant was operating normally and radiation levels had not increased.
The US, Ukraine and the UN have called for the plant to be demilitarised but Russia has said “there are no ongoing discussions” about demilitarisation, Russia’s Tass news agency reported, citing the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.
The US has further called for the plant to be shut down. “We continue to believe that a controlled shutdown of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear reactors would be the safest and least risky option in the near-term,” said the White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby.