KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian military forces have successfully established positions on the eastern side of the Dnieper River, according to a new analysis, giving rise to speculation Sunday that the advances could be an early sign of Kyiv’s long-awaited spring counteroffensive.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, reported late Saturday that geolocated footage from pro-Kremlin military bloggers indicated that Ukrainian troops had established a foothold near the town of Oleshky, along with “stable supply lines” to their positions.
Analysts widely believe that if Ukraine goes ahead with a spring counteroffensive, a major goal would be to break through the land corridor between Russia and the annexed Crimean Peninsula, which would necessitate crossing the Dnieper River in the country’s south.
Responding to Ukrainian media reports proclaiming that the establishment of such positions indicated the counteroffensive had begun, Natalia Humeniuk, the spokeswoman for Ukraine’s Operational Command South, called for patience.
While neither confirming nor denying the ISW report, she said only that details of military operations in the Dnieper delta couldn’t be disclosed for operational and security reasons.
Speaking on Ukrainian television, Humeniuk added that it was “very difficult work” when “it’s necessary to overcome an obstacle such as the Dnieper, when the front line passes through a wide and powerful river.”
The Kremlin-installed head of the Kherson region, one of four parts of Ukraine that Russia said it was illegally annexing in September, denied on Sunday that Ukrainian forces have established a foothold on the east bank of the Dnieper.
In a Telegram update, Vladimir Saldo said that Russian forces are “in full control” of the area, and speculated that the images referenced by the ISW may have depicted Ukrainian sabotage units that “managed to take a selfie” across the Dnieper before being forced back.
After more than a year since the Russian invasion, recent fighting has become a war of attrition, with neither side able to gain momentum.
But Ukraine has recently received sophisticated weapons from its Western allies, and new troops freshly trained in the West, giving rise to growing anticipation of a counteroffensive.
American-made Patriot missiles arrived in Ukraine last week and military spokesman Yuriy Ihnat said Sunday on Ukrainian television that some have already gone into battlefield service.
The U.S. agreed in October to send the surface-to-air systems, which can target aircraft, cruise missiles and shorter-range ballistic missiles such as those that Russia has used to bombard residential areas and the Ukrainian power grid.
The fiercest battles have been in the eastern Donetsk region, where Russia is struggling to encircle the city of Bakhmut in the face of dogged Ukrainian defense.
On Sunday, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov claimed Moscow’s forces had captured two more neighborhoods in the western part of Bakhmut, without providing further details or clarifying what areas were still in Ukrainian hands.
In the south, the Dnieper has for months marked the contact line in the Kherson region, where its namesake capital is regularly pummeled by shelling from Russian forces stationed across the river.
In addition to having established a foothold near the town of Oleshky, across the Dnieper delta from Kherson, ISW said that Ukrainian troops were also approaching the nearby village of Dachi, citing data from Russian military bloggers.
In Telegram posts on Thursday and Saturday, ISW said the bloggers claimed that Ukrainian forces had maintained these positions for weeks and established stable supply lines to them, indicating a lack of Russian control over the area.
The Associated Press confirmed the posts from the bloggers, but it wasn’t immediately possible to independently verify the data they shared.
Russia is also expected to launch more intensive attacks in the spring, but ISW reported that top Russian defense figures are showing signs that they may be pushing for a consolidation of existing gains in Ukraine, rather than costly new operations, as Moscow struggles with both material and manpower.
The think tank cited comments from financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group — a private Russian military company whose fighters have spearheaded the offensive on Bakhmut.
On Saturday, Prigozhin’s press service posted comments he made on its official Telegram channel in which he argued that Russian forces need to “anchor (themselves) in such a way that it is only possible to tear them out with (the) opponent’s claws.”
The interview was published shortly after Western leaders meeting at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany pledged to train more Ukrainian personnel and keep up their military support for Kyiv.
As Moscow seeks to bolster its troop numbers, the U.K. Ministry of Defense noted Sunday in an intelligence briefing that Russian authorities had mounted a large-scale military recruitment campaign using social media, billboards and state television.
It said Russian officials are “almost certainly seeking to delay any new, overt mandatory mobilization for as long as possible to minimize domestic dissent,” while assessing that this latest effort would likely fail to meet the defense ministry’s stated goal of recruiting 400,000 new volunteers.
In attacks overnight, local authorities in eastern Ukraine reported that Russian forces had launched at least five S-300 missiles at Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city and the surrounding region.
The missiles damaged an industrial facility and private homes but caused no casualties, according to Oleh Syniehubov, the Kharkiv regional governor.
In Kherson, one civilian was killed and two were wounded as Russian troops used artillery, drones and warplanes to launch a total of 54 strikes on the province, Gov. Oleksandr Prokudin said on Telegram on Sunday morning.
Russian forces on Saturday and overnight also dropped five guided aerial bombs over the Kherson region, Ukraine’s Operational Command South said in a Facebook post Sunday. According to the post, the bombs were launched from drones and aircraft and damaged multiple residential buildings, but caused no casualties.
Also in the Kherson region, two women, ages 85 and 57, were hospitalized after being wounded in a Russian artillery attack that damaged a local school and about 25 residential buildings in the village of Kizomys, Prokudin said in a Telegram post.
In the neighboring Zaporizhzhia region, Russian shelling wounded a 56-year-old man in Stepnohirsk, a town on the banks of the Dnieper river, local Gov. Yurii Malashko wrote on Telegram. ___
Joanna Kozlowska reported from London.
A previous version of this story was corrected to show that the Kremlin-installed head of the Kherson region made the comments on Telegram, not to RIA.