Ukrainian forces were making a major effort to punch through Russian defensive lines in southeast Ukraine for a second day, a Moscow-installed official said on Monday as Russia's Defence Ministry declared that it had foiled an assault in an illegally annexed region of the invaded country.
Kyiv authorities suggested the attack reports were a Russian misinformation ruse as the Ukrainian military prepares for a widely anticipated counteroffensive.
Vladimir Rogov, an official in the Russia-backed administration of Ukraine's partly occupied Zaporizhzhia province, said fighting resumed on its border with the eastern Donetsk region on Monday after Russian defences beat back a Ukrainian advance the previous day.
"The enemy threw an even bigger force into the attack than yesterday (Sunday)," and the new attempt to break through the front line was "more large-scale and organised," Rogov said, adding, "A battle is underway".
Rogov interpreted the Ukraine military movements as part of an effort by Kyiv to reach the Sea of Azov coast and cut the land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014.
Analysts have long viewed that strategy as likely because it would cut the Russian forces in two and severely strain supplies to Crimea, which has served as a key Russian military hub in the war that started on February 24, 2022.
Rogov's comments came after Moscow also claimed to have thwarted large Ukrainian attacks in the eastern Donetsk region, near its border with the Zaporizhzhia region.
Donetsk is another of the four provinces that President Vladimir Putin claimed as Russian territory last fall and which Moscow partially controls.
Russia's Defence Ministry said it had pushed back a "large-scale" assault Sunday at five places in Donetsk province.
The annoucement couldn't be independently verified, and Ukrainian officials didn't confirm any assaults, but the reports fuelled speculation that a major Ukrainian ground operation could be underway as part of the anticipated counteroffensive.
A video published by the Ukrainian Defence Ministry showed soldiers putting a finger to their lips in a sign to keep quiet.
"Plans love silence," it said on the screen. "There will be no announcement of the start."
The Centre for Strategic Communications of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said on Telegram that Russian forces were "stepping up their information and psychological operations".
"In order to demoralise Ukrainians and mislead the community (including their own population), Russian propagandists will spread false information about the counteroffensive, its directions and the losses of the Ukrainian army. Even if there is no counteroffensive," a statement on Telegram read.
Ukrainian officials have kept Russia guessing about when and where it might launch a counteroffensive, or even whether it had already started. A possible counteroffensive, using advanced weapons supplied by Western allies, could provide a major morale boost for Ukrainians more than 15 months after Russia started its full-scale invasion.
Recent military activity, including drone attacks on Moscow, cross-border raids into Russia and sabotage and drone attacks on infrastructure behind Russian lines, has unnerved Russians.
Analysts say those actions may represent the start of the counteroffensive.
The Russian military on Monday said it repelled the latest Ukrainian incursion into Russia's Belgorod region, on the border in Ukraine. Russians who purport to be fighting alongside Ukrainian forces said they attacked on Sunday. They were driven back by airstrikes and artillery fire, according to the Russian Defence Ministry.
Driving out the Kremlin's forces is a daunting challenge for Kyiv's planners. Russia has built extensive defensive lines, including trenches, minefields and anti-tank obstacles.
Ukraine could launch simultaneous pushes in different areas of the front line that stretches for around 1,100 kilometres (nearly 700 miles), analysts say.
Michael Clark, the former head of the Royal United Services Institute think tank, said the "increased tempo" of activity in recent weeks probably marked the start of the counteroffensive and that June is likely to see the start of Ukraine's ground operation.
"There's something going on," he told the BBC.
Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov claimed that 250 Ukrainian personnel were killed in the fighting in Donetsk province, and 16 Ukrainian tanks, three infantry fighting vehicles and 21 armoured combat vehicles were destroyed.
"The enemy's goal was to break through our defences in the most vulnerable, in its opinion, sector of the front," Konashenkov said. "The enemy did not achieve its tasks. It had no success."
The Russian Defence Ministry said the alleged Donetsk attack started Sunday morning. It was unclear why it waited until early Monday to announce it.
Ukraine often waits until the completion of its military operations to confirm its actions, imposing news blackouts in the interim.
For months, Ukrainian officials have spoken of plans to launch a counteroffensive to reclaim territory Russia has occupied during the full-scale invasion, as well as the Crimean Peninsula.
At least two factors have been at play in the timing: better ground conditions for the movement of troops and equipment after the winter, and the deployment of more advanced Western weapons and training of Ukrainian troops to use them.
Ukraine's Western allies have sent the country more than 65 billion euros (USD 70 billion) in military aid to help it fight Russia.
The Russian Defence Ministry spokesman said Ukraine used six mechanised and two tank battalions in the Donetsk attacks. The ministry released a video that it said showed the destruction of some of the equipment in a field.
In a rare specific mention of the presence of Russia's top military leaders in battlefield operations, Konashenkov said the chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces, Gen Valery Gerasimov, "was at one of the forward command posts".
Announcing Gerasimov's direct involvement could be a response to criticism by some Russian military bloggers and by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Russian mercenary group Wagner, that Russia's military brass hasn't been visible enough at the front or taken sufficient control or responsibility for their country's military operations in Ukraine.
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