By Tom Balmforth
KYIV (Reuters) – President Volodymyr Zelenskiy acknowledged on Saturday that his army was engaged in “counter-offensive and defensive operations” a day after Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin said Kiev’s much-vaunted campaign to resume the territory was well under way.
But the Ukrainian leader did not divulge any details, telling reporters to convey to Putin that his generals were optimistic.
Sporting his signature khaki fatigues, Zelenskiy shrugged during a press conference when asked about Putin’s comments on Friday that Kiev had started its counteroffensive but made no progress.
“Counter-offensive and defensive actions are taking place in Ukraine, but I will not say in detail what stage they are at,” Zelenskiy said, citing senior Ukrainian army officers by name.
“They (the generals) are all in a positive mood. Pass that on to Putin,” he said with a smile, alongside visiting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
He said Putin’s comments on the counteroffensive were “interesting… It’s important that Russia always feels this: that it doesn’t have long left, in my opinion.”
The Russian Defense Ministry said on Saturday that Ukrainian forces had tried “unsuccessfully” to attack in the past 24 hours in the southern regions of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia, two areas prone to heavy fighting.
The ministry also mentioned Bakhmut, the eastern city that Moscow says it captured last month after 10 months of fierce battles.
Reuters was unable to independently verify the situation on the battlefield.
In his nightly video address, Zelenskiy again provided some details while urging the troops to keep fighting.
“Thank you to all those holding their positions and those advancing,” he said, citing the eastern and southern fronts, where the fighting is heaviest.
The Ukrainian General Staff said its forces repelled enemy attacks around Bakhmut and the long-besieged town of Maryinka. Russian forces, he said, “continue to suffer heavy losses which they are trying to conceal.”
General Oleksander Syrskyi, the ground forces commander who is operationally in control of the counteroffensive, posted a photo on social media of an explosion that he said was a group of Russian soldiers being destroyed near Bakhmut.
Ukrainian military spokesman Serhiy Cherevatyi reported further gains near Bakhmut.
“We are trying…to carry out strikes on the enemy, we are counterattacking. We managed to advance up to 1,400 meters (0.87 miles) on different sections of the front,” Cherevatyi said.
Ukraine has said for months that it is planning a major counter-offensive. But he denied that the main operation had started.
With little independent reporting from the front lines, it has been difficult to assess the state of the fighting.
The UK Ministry of Defense said Ukraine had carried out “significant” operations in several parts of the east and south over the past 48 hours, with Russian defenses breached in places.
SOME PROGRESS: UK MINISTRY
“In some areas, Ukrainian forces probably made good progress and penetrated the first line of Russian defences. In others, Ukrainian progress was slower,” he said, also calling the performance a the Russian army of mixed.
“Some (Russian) units are likely conducting credible maneuver defense operations while others have retreated in some disorder, amid increased reports of Russian casualties as they retreat through their own minefields. “
Ukraine’s counteroffensive is expected to use thousands of Western-trained and equipped troops, but Russia has built huge fortifications in occupied territory to prepare, while Kiev also lacks air supremacy.
The south is seen as a key strategic priority for a Ukrainian push that could aim to retake Europe’s largest nuclear power plant and cut Russia’s land bridge to the occupied Black Sea peninsula in Crimea, dividing Russian forces.
Ukrainian military analyst Oleksiy Hetman told NV Radio that the events of the past few days were only initial stages.
“What’s happening now could be called ‘combat reconnaissance’ – the first step in the offense,” Hetman said. “It was impossible to progress in depth. The aim was to check the enemy’s defences. Let’s wait a few days and we’ll see.”
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth and Felix Hoske; Editing by Alex Richardson, Andrew Cawthorne, Mike Harrison, Ron Popeski and Cynthia Osterman)