Zelensky Claims ‘Step-by-step’ Progress in Counteroffensive; Putin Says Kyiv hasn’t Achieved its Goals

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine
Ukrainian soldiers ride on an armored vehicle, an old Soviet-designed 2S1 self-propelled howitzer, as one soldier raises a vanilla ice cream cone, in the Zaporizhzhia region on May 20.

Ukrainian officials have reported fierce fighting on the front lines after their military launched its long-anticipated counteroffensive. President Volodymyr Zelensky said that “very tough battles” were raging in the eastern Donetsk region and that Ukrainian forces were seeing “step-by-step” results.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday offered his first remarks acknowledging the counteroffensive, telling reporters that the Kremlin could say with “absolute certainty” that the campaign had begun but that Ukraine had not achieved its goals.

Ukraine has not made an official announcement on the counteroffensive – and has previously cautioned that no single action would mark the start of the campaign. However, Ukrainian troops intensified strikes in the southeast this week, according to four service members, The Washington Post reported. The offensive is expected to unfold over months and serve as a test of months-long efforts by the United States and Ukraine’s other Western backers to train its forces and equip them with increasingly sophisticated weapons.

Here’s the latest on the war and its ripple effects across the globe.

– – –

-Intense fighting has been reported in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region, long seen as the likely focal point for Ukraine’s counterattack. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Friday that Russia is “conducting defensive operations” in the area. The head of Ukraine’s presidential office, Andriy Yermak, said on Telegram that an attack on a hospital in Huliapole, a town near the region’s front line, killed two staff members. If Ukraine retakes Zaporizhzhia, it could disrupt critical Russian supply lines by cutting off the land route connecting Russian-occupied Crimea to the Russian mainland.

-Putin pointed to the use of “strategic reserves” as evidence that the counteroffensive had begun. “On none of the sectors of the front line did the Ukrainian troops achieve the tasks assigned to them,” he said at a meeting of leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Sochi, Russia. Putin said that Ukraine was suffering heavy losses but that it still retained “offensive potential.”

-A senior Western intelligence official told The Post that, for now, Ukraine appeared to be holding back its most significant firepower, noting that the larger blow “hasn’t landed yet.” The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.

-Ukraine’s military is armed with a potent U.S. arsenal. Washington has committed 90 Stryker personnel carriers and more than 100 Bradley Fighting Vehicles. The Strykers and Bradleys are generally faster, more advanced and better protected than the aging Soviet and Russian vehicles that the Ukrainians operate, but they are more technically challenging to maintain in the field. The United States has also pledged 31 Abrams tanks, but they will not be ready until September at the earliest.

-The situation at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant remains “precarious,” according to Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. There have been concerns over safety at the Russian-occupied plant after the collapse of the nearby Kakhovka dam reduced water levels in the reservoir used to supply cooling water to the plant. For now, the plant is continuing to pump cooling water from the reservoir, but it is not clear when and at what level the reservoir will stabilize, Grossi said.

-While assessments of the dam collapse were still underway, the senior Western intelligence official pointed to several factors that suggested Russian culpability, namely that Russia controlled the section of dam where the hydropower unit fits into the overall structure – a vulnerable point that could have been exploited to destroy the dam, which was otherwise believed to be structurally sound. “If you have access to the inside of the dam, as they did, you can potentially exploit that vulnerability in a way someone else could not,” the official said.

-Ukrainian security services on Friday released a recording of a phone conversation that they said provided evidence that Russia had sabotaged the plant. “It wasn’t them,” a voice, described by the Ukrainians as a Russian soldier, says on the recording, using an expletive to refer to the destruction of the dam. “It was our [guys].” A second soldier says, “[Our] sabotage group was there. They wanted to scare [people] with this dam. It didn’t go according to plan. It was more than they had planned.” The United States has not publicly issued any determination about what happened at the dam on Tuesday, or who – if anyone – was responsible, while Russia has claimed without evidence that Ukraine attacked the dam.

-The “situation is tense on all areas of the front,” said Maliar, the Ukrainian deputy defense minister, adding that the east is the “epicenter” of the fighting. Like Zelensky, she highlighted developments in Bakhmut. “The enemy is withdrawing reserves and trying to hold the occupied positions,” she said, adding that Ukrainian forces are “conducting active combat operations in several areas” nearby. The embattled city has been a focus for Ukrainian and Russian forces for months.

-Three people were injured when a drone hit a residential building in a Russian city close to the Ukrainian border, the regional governor said. Writing on Telegram early Friday, Voronezh governor Aleksandr Gusev said three people were lightly injured but refused hospital treatment. There have been frequent reports of fires, drone attacks and shelling in Russian areas, particularly near the border, although Kyiv officials have regularly denied any direct involvement.

-A Ukrainian tank was seen being destroyed in the Zaporizhzhia region, according to video released by the Russian Defense Ministry on Thursday and independently verified by The Post. An aerial photo of the same scene showed a column of at least six Ukrainian military vehicles, which appeared to include German-made Leopard 2 tanks, according to two military analysts.

-Rocket strikes injured eight people in Uman, in the Cherkasy region of central Ukraine, on Thursday evening, regional administration head Ihor Taburets said on Telegram. “There were two hits: on an industrial facility and a carwash. In the second case, a fire broke out as a result of the hit,” he said.

-Ukraine and Russia accused each other of shelling people fleeing the flooding after the Kakhovka dam collapse. According to the Ukrainian governor of the region, Oleksandr Prokudin, at least one woman was killed and 17 people were injured in the flooded city of Kherson. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there were “fatalities,” without giving a number.

-The United States announced an additional $2.1 billion in long-term military assistance for Ukraine. The package includes additional munitions for the Patriot and Hawk air defense systems, artillery rounds and Puma unmanned aerial systems. The supplies will be provided under the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, so they will need to be procured from the defense industry and then sent to Ukraine.

-Putin met with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Sochi. While Russian forces in Belarus made a failed attempt to capture Kyiv at the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, Lukashenko has said he will send his troops to Ukraine only if his country is attacked.

-Britain and Sweden scrambled jets to intercept Russian warplanes flying close to NATO and Swedish airspace, the British Royal Air Force said. The Russian aircraft were not complying with international norms, but they remained in international airspace and flew in a professional manner, it added.

-The British Defense Ministry accused Russia of hindering grain exports despite the renewal of the Black Sea grain deal last month. In its daily update Friday, the ministry said Russia is slowing inspections and blocking some vessels. Only one or two ships are being inspected per day, compared with between six and eight during the fall – with the probable goal of forcing concessions on the reopening of an ammonia export pipeline.