KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin asserted Friday that Ukrainian troops have started a long-expected counteroffensive and were suffering “significant” losses. His comments came just hours after a string of drone strikes inside Russian territory.
It was Putin’s latest effort to shape the gut-wrenching narrative of the invasion he ordered more than 15 months ago, sparking widespread international condemnation and reviving Cold War-style tensions.
The conflict entered a complex new phase this week with the rupture of a Dnieper River dam that sent floodwaters gushing through a large swath of the front in southern Ukraine. Tens of thousands of civilians already facing the misery of regular shelling fled for higher ground on both sides of the swollen and sprawling waterway.
Kyiv has played down talk of a counteroffensive, reasoning that the less said about its military moves the better. Speaking after he visited flood zones on Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he was in touch with Ukrainian forces “in all the hottest areas” and praised an unspecified ”result” from their efforts.
Putin said Russian forces have the upper hand.
“We can clearly say the offensive has started, as indicated by the Ukrainian army’s use of strategic reserves,” Putin told reporters in Sochi, where he was meeting with heads of other states in the Eurasian Economic Union. “But the Ukrainian troops haven’t achieved their stated tasks in a single area of fighting.”
Kyiv has not specified whether reservists have been mobilized to the front, but its Western allies have poured firepower, defensive systems, and other military assets and advice into Ukraine, raising the stakes for the expected counteroffensive.
“We are seeing that the Ukrainian regime’s troops are suffering significant losses,” Putin said, without providing details. “It’s known that the offensive side suffers losses of 3 to 1 — it’s sort of classic — but in this case, the losses significantly exceed that classic level.”
On Friday, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Russia was on the defensive in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia province, though the epicenter of fighting remained in the east, particularly in the Donetsk region. She described “heavy battles” in Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiivka and Marinka.
Valerii Shershen, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s armed forces in Zaporizhzhia, told Radio Liberty that they were searching for weaknesses in Russia’s defense, which Moscow was trying to strengthen by deploying mines, constructing fortifications and regrouping.
Earlier, regional authorities in southwest Russia near the Ukrainian border reported the latest flurry of drone strikes. The strikes have exposed the vulnerabilities of Moscow’s air defense systems.
The regional governor of Voronezh, Alexander Gusev, said on the Telegram app that a drone crashed into a high-rise apartment building in the city of the same name, injuring three residents who were hit by shards of glass. Russian state media published photos of windows blown out and damage to the facade.
Gusev said the drone was targeting a nearby airbase but veered off course after its signal was jammed. The city lies some 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Ukraine’s Luhansk region, most of which is occupied by Russia.
Separately, Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov of the neighboring Belgorod region, which also borders Ukraine, said air defenses had shot down two unspecified targets overnight. An apartment building and private homes were damaged, he said, without saying by what. He also said a drone fell on the roof of an office building in the city of Belgorod. It failed to detonate but caught fire on impact, causing “insignificant damage,” he wrote.
The leader of a third region of Russia, Kursk Gov. Roman Starovoit, said a drone crashed to the ground outside an oil depot and near water reservoirs in the local capital, causing no casualties or damage.
Ukrainian authorities have generally denied any role in attacks inside Russia. Such drone strikes — there was even one near the Kremlin — along with cross-border raids into southwestern Russia have brought the war home to Russians.
In Ukraine, the governor of the Kherson region, Oleksandr Prokudin, said Friday that water levels had decreased by about 20 centimeters (8 inches) overnight on the western bank of the Dnieper, which was inundated starting Tuesday after the breach of the Nova Kakhovka dam upstream.
Officials on both sides indicated that about 20 people have died in the flooding. The United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator in Ukraine, Denise Brown, visited the flood-hit town of Bilozerka on Friday, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
“Ms. Brown said that although initial estimates indicate that 17,000 people are being impacted in the areas controlled by Ukraine alone, it is important to understand that the crisis has not stopped and continues to evolve rapidly,” Dujarric said.
Kyiv accused Russia of blowing up the dam and its hydropower plant, which Russian forces controlled, while Moscow said Ukraine bombarded it.
The Norwegian earthquake center NORSAR said Friday that a seismological station in neighboring Romania recorded tremors in the vicinity of the dam at 2:54 a.m. Tuesday, around the time Zelenskyy said the breach occurred.
“What we can see from our data is that there was an explosion in the area of the dam as the same time as the dam broke,” NORSAR head of research Volker Oye told The Associated Press.
The Norwegian center is part of a global monitoring system that helps verify compliance with the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
Experts predicted the consequences of the dam’s collapse would last for months. Continued fighting in the region was bound to slow recovery efforts.
Viktor Vitovetskyi, a representative of Ukraine’s Emergency Service, said 46 municipalities in the Kherson region have flooded, 14 of them along the Russian-occupied eastern bank of the river.
Even as efforts were underway to rescue civilians and supply them with fresh water and other services, he said Russian shelling over the last day killed two civilians and injured 17 in the region.
In other developments Friday:
1. Air raid sirens and alert systems went off across Ukraine overnight warning of more Russian long-range strikes by drones and missiles. Falling debris from a downed Russian missile killed one civilian and injured three others in the western city of Zviahel, the regional governor said.
2. Gladkov, the governor of Russia’s Belgorod region, said Ukrainian shelling wounded three civilians in the border town of Shebekino.
3. The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said a “variety of indicators” suggested Ukraine’s counteroffensive had begun. It said the new phase of the war “may also see the highest Ukrainian losses.”
4. Andriy Yermak, head of Zelenskyy’s office, said two hospital workers, a nurse and a plumber were killed and two other people injured in Russian shelling of a hospital in Huliaipole, in the Zaporizhzhia region.
Kozlowska reported from London. Jon Gambrell in Kyiv; Hanna Arhirova in Warsaw, Poland; Edit M. Lederer at the United Nations; and David Keyton in Stockholm, Sweden, contributed to this report.
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