Russia has launched a major offensive in eastern Ukraine and is trying to break through defences near the town of Kreminna, the governor for the Luhansk region said on Thursday.
Serhiy Haidai told Ukrainian TV that Russian troops had gone on the attack and were trying to advance westwards across a winter landscape of snow and forests. There had been “maximum escalation” and big increase in shooting and shelling, he said.
“These attacks are practically a daily occurrence. We see small groups [of Russian soldiers] trying to advance, sometimes with the support of heavy armour – infantry fighting vehicles and tanks – and sometimes not. There is continuous firing.”
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He claimed the offensive had not worked. “So far they haven’t had any success. Our defenders have been able to hold them back completely,” he said.
Western governments believe Russia is planning a major assault on Ukraine, possibly as early as next week before the 24 February anniversary of its full-scale invasion. Its main goal is believed to be to capture the Donbas region, including Luhansk, which Ukraine partly controls.
The timing of any attack in unknown. Ukrainian government sources say one scenario would include ballistic missile strikes on large cities including Kyiv, and an attempt to cut off the east of the country by bombing bridges and advancing in a sweeping arc from the north and south.
Military analysts are sceptical Russia has enough infantry units to advance rapidly into Ukrainian territory. They acknowledge, however, that some sections of the Ukrainian-Russian border are lightly defended, with the bulk of Ukrainian forces located in the eastern Donetsk province where fighting rages around the city of Bakhmut.
There are growing signs that even with Russia’s wider battle strategy unknown, a substantial offensive in the east has already started.
Russian forces, which dug in and brought in reinforcements after Ukrainian troops retook almost all of Kharkiv province and pushed into Luhansk last autumn, are now pushing forward along a broad front west of the towns of Svatove and Kreminna. Punching through Ukrainian lines there would take Russian forces a step closer to the much larger city of Kramatorsk, a key Ukrainian military hub. We need “heavy equipment and artillery ammunition, then we will not only be able to maintain the defence but also make a good counter-offensive operation,” Haidai said.
Svatove and Kreminna, which lie about 62 miles (100km) north-west of the regional capital Luhansk, were both occupied by Moscow last spring. Before the Ukrainian counter-offensive last year Russia had control of Luhansk oblast, partly captured in 2014, bar a handful of villages.
“The fighting has intensified, they launched another offensive last night. So far, we are holding our position, but it is tough,” said Artur, a Ukrainian soldier fighting in Kreminna. They attack in small groups, usually groups of 15 men. We have many injured but they have many more casualties”
The Institute for the Study of War confirmed a “marked increase” in operations in the area over the past week in its latest report. It said Russia had made “marginal gains” along the border between Kharkiv and Luhansk provinces, including the village of Dvorichne. The offensive had probably not yet “reached its full tempo”, it said.
“The commitment of significant elements of at least three major Russian divisions to offensive operations in this sector indicates the Russian offensive has begun, even if Ukrainian forces are so far preventing Russian forces from securing significant gains.”
Anton Gerashchenko, who advises the interior ministry in Kyiv and runs a popular Telegram social media channel, also suggested Russia’s offensive had started. “Russia throws colossal amounts of weapons and people to attack Ukraine and has been for sometime,” he posted.
Videos and photographs indicate that Russian forces have recently suffered losses. On his Telegram channel Haidai linked to an interview on Russian state TV with the crew of a tank support fighting vehicle, known as a Terminator. The triumphant report on Channel One was filmed in the woods of Luhansk province.
Haida wrote that the tank ,which starred in the “main propaganda TV show”, had now been eliminated. He posted photos as proof. “So many beautiful words about the tank being almost impossible to destroy….almost😂😂,” the governor wrote. “The Kreminna forests are scary … ”
Ukraine released video on Thursday which suggested Russia had lost more than 20 armoured vehicles near the Ukrainian-held town of Vulhedar in Donetsk oblast. Ukraine’s 72nd separate mechanised brigade wiped out nearly a third of all Russian combat vehicles in the area in a lethal counter-attack, Kyiv claimed.