KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — An upsurge in fighting on the southern front line and a Ukrainian claim for further attacks on Russian positions fueled speculation on Tuesday that a long-awaited counteroffensive has begun in an attempt to turn the tide of the war.
LOOK: Fighting in southern Ukraine raises concerns over nuclear power plant occupied by Russian forces
But Ukrainian officials have warned against excessive optimism in a war that has already seen similar expectations of a change in fortunes, and the Russian Defense Ministry has claimed that an attempt by Ukrainian troops to launch an offensive had failed and caused heavy losses.
Although independent verification of battlefield movements has been extremely difficult, the UK Ministry of Defense said in an intelligence report that, as early as Monday morning, “several brigades of the Ukrainian Armed Forces increased the weight of fire from artillery in the front line sectors of southern Ukraine. ”
Attention has focused on the potential damage Ukraine could have inflicted on Russian positions around the port city of Kherson, a major economic hub near the Black Sea and one of Moscow’s most prized assets since. the start of the invasion just over six months ago.
Ukraine’s presidential office reported on Tuesday that “powerful explosions continued day and night in the Kherson region. Fierce battles are taking place virtually throughout the strategic area. Ukrainian forces, according to the report, destroyed a number of ammunition depots in the area and all major bridges over the Dnieper that are vital for supplying Russian troops.
Russian state news agency Tass reported five explosions that rocked Kherson on Tuesday morning – blasts likely caused by air defense systems at work.
The Ukrainian army’s southern command operation also reported destroying a pontoon crossing the Dnieper that Russian forces were setting up and hitting a dozen command posts in several areas of the Kherson region with artillery fire.
“The most important thing is the work of the Ukrainian artillery on the bridges, which the Russian army can no longer use,” independent Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov told The Associated Press.
“Even the barges were destroyed. The Russians cannot maintain forces near Kherson – this is the most important thing.
On Monday, Nataliya Gumenyuik from the Southern Command Center told Ukrainian media Liga.Net that Kyiv forces launched offensive operations “in many directions in our area of responsibility and broke through the first line of defense of the enemy”. The statement quickly made headlines after weeks of reports that Ukrainian forces were preparing an offensive there and as Ukrainian attacks on the Kherson region intensified.
Zhdanov said that Russia has three lines of defense in the Kherson region, and breaking the first only signals “isolated offensive actions of the Ukrainian army”.
The war has reached a stalemate over the past few months with increasing casualties and the local population bearing the brunt of the suffering during the relentless shelling in the east and also in the wider area around the occupied Zaporizhzhia Atomic Power Plant by Russia, which has also been at the heart of the fighting in Ukraine.
Amid fears that the plant could be damaged, leading to a radioactive leak, a UN nuclear monitoring team has arrived in Kyiv and is preparing a mission to protect the Russian-occupied plant from a nuclear disaster.
READ MORE: UN watchdog to inspect Russian-occupied Ukrainian nuclear power plant
The stakes couldn’t be higher for experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency, who will visit the plant in a country where the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 spread radiation across the region, shocking the world and intensifying a global push away from nuclear energy.
The failure of the two sides in the war to agree on much more than allowing the team to go is compounded by an already complicated task. Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of repeatedly bombing the region around the nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe.
Nikopol, which is just across the Dnieper from the factory in Zaporizhzhia, again came under heavy shelling, local authorities said, along with a bus station, shops and a children’s library damaged.
And the town of Zaporizhzhia itself, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) away, was targeted by a Russian missile strike, Ukraine’s presidential office said.
The dangers of a leak are now so high that authorities have started distributing anti-radiation iodine tablets to nearby residents.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reacted to speculation in his nightly video address Monday about whether his forces had launched a major counteroffensive.
“Anyone want to know what our plans are?” You won’t hear any details from a truly responsible person. Because it’s war.
His adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, warned of “super sensational announcements” regarding a counter-offensive.
On the other side, the Moscow-appointed Crimean regional leader, Sergei Aksyonov, dismissed the Ukrainian claim of an offensive in the Kherson region as false. He said Ukrainian forces suffered heavy casualties in the area. And for its part, the Russian Defense Ministry said its forces had inflicted heavy losses of personnel and military equipment on Ukrainian troops.
The Kherson region sits just north of the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014 to spark a conflict that was largely frozen until the February 24 invasion.
Otherwise, the attacks and shelling in the rest of eastern and southern Ukraine continued with the dull rhythm of death and destruction.
At least nine civilians were killed in other Russian shelling, Ukrainian officials said, from the Black Sea port of Mykolaiv to the northeastern industrial hub of Kharkiv, where five were killed in the city center.
Yuras Karmanau contributed to this report from Tallinn, Estonia.