The Ukrainian Army’s 95th Air Assault Brigade in a wooded position targeting Russian forces in eastern Ukraine on Friday.Credit...Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Ukrainian forces have stepped up artillery strikes and ground assaults in a flurry of military activity that American officials suggested on Monday could signal that Kyiv’s long-planned counteroffensive against Russia had begun.

The fighting, which began on Sunday, was raging along several points on the front line, but to the east of where many analysts had expected Ukraine’s counteroffensive to begin. Even starting in that eastern area, experts said, would allow Kyiv’s troops to try to accomplish the same goal: Head south toward the Sea of Azov and cut off the land bridge connecting occupied Crimea to mainland Russia.

The Russian Ministry of Defense said on Monday that a major Ukrainian operation had begun at five locations in the eastern Donetsk region and that it had repelled the assaults and inflicted casualties on Ukrainian forces. Moscow’s report could not be independently corroborated.

Ukraine’s deputy minister of defense, Hanna Malyar, said on the Telegram messaging app that Kyiv’s forces were “moving to offensive actions,” continuing a defense that began when Russia invaded its neighbor 15 months ago. “A defensive operation includes everything,” she said, “including counteroffensive actions.”

The devastated city of Bakhmut, which Moscow captured after months of brutal fighting, was the epicenter of the fighting, she said. But Russian military bloggers said that a stronger Ukrainian attack had begun elsewhere in Donetsk on Monday morning, near the town of Velyka Novosilka. Mikhail Zvinchuk, a pro-Russian blogger who writes under the pseudonym Rybar, described intense fighting as Ukrainian soldiers in German-made Leopard tanks seized control of the nearby village of Novodonetske on Monday evening, a possible sign that Kyiv had pushed its NATO-trained forces into the battle.


Credit...Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Ukraine has long said it will make no formal announcement about the start of its counteroffensive, and this weekend the Ukrainian military released a video on the Telegram messaging app renewing its plea for operational silence about the expected counteroffensive, with the slogan, “Plans love silence.”

Ukrainian officials have not told their American counterparts exactly when the battles would start, but provided them with a time frame for when they intended to begin the push against Russian forces. Sunday fell within that time frame, said U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.

The American officials partly based their assessment that Kyiv’s counteroffensive had likely begun on information gleaned from U.S. military satellites, which had detected increased movement within the Ukrainian military positions. The satellites have infrared capabilities to track artillery fire and missile launches.

U.S. military analysts also said they believed that Ukrainian units were making an initial push to determine the positions and strength of Russia’s forces — a traditional tactic that Americans had been training Ukrainian forces to use. An American official said this testing for potential weaknesses in Russian defenses, manpower and morale — what the U.S. military calls “reconnaissance by force” — would most likely continue for several days. If successful, the official said, the main thrust of the Ukrainian counteroffensive would become more evident during that time.

At the White House, John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said he would not go beyond the statement that Ukrainian officials made, saying the start of a counteroffensive was for Kyiv to discuss.

“What I can speak to is how hard we worked to prepare them to be ready,” Mr. Kirby said. “The president is confident we did everything we could over the last seven, eight months or more to make sure they had the capabilities to be successful.”


Members of the 93rd Mechanized Brigade preparing to fire an 82 millimeter mortar at Russian positions in Bakhmut last month.Credit...Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Ukrainian forces are making an advance near the ruined eastern city of Bakhmut which fell to Russian forces more than two weeks ago, two senior Ukrainian defense officials said on Monday.

Tanks from an assault brigade destroyed enemy positions and the forces had made progress in a small wooded area “during an assault on enemy positions in the Bakhmut sector,” the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, said in a brief message posted on the Telegram app. “We continue to move forward,” he added.

Mr. Syrsky did not specify the scale of the fighting, which has in recent days involved a series of relatively limited Ukrainian efforts to move forward on the outskirts of the city.

Ukraine’s deputy minister of defense, Hanna Maliar, said that Bakhmut was the epicenter of military operations and that Kyiv’s forces were on the offensive. “We are moving along a fairly wide front,” she said. “We are successful.”

Ms. Maliar said Ukrainian forces hold the “dominant heights” — an apparent reference to the hills outside of the city, where Ukrainian officials have said they hoped to establish favorable firing positions.

It was not possible to confirm the comments by either official independently, and there was no immediate comment from the Russian authorities.

It also was not clear whether the fighting was part of the possible opening stages of a broader assault, which Ukraine has been preparing for months, or part of more isolated and limited fighting in a battle for the city that has raged since last summer.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense released an elaborate video on Sunday in which it said it would remain silent about the start of an expected counteroffensive, which is intended to recapture territory from Russia.

Russian forces reduced Bakhmut, a city in the Donetsk region that had 70,000 residents before the war, to rubble during around 10 months of fighting. Moscow declared victory more than two weeks ago in the battle for Bakhmut, which became one of the bloodiest assaults since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine more than 15 months ago.

Much of the fighting had been conducted by mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner private military company, but last week its forces began to withdraw from the city in line with orders from the group’s leader, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin.

Since the fall of Bakhmut, Ukrainian forces have retaken limited territory on its outskirts but Ukraine’s military said last week that the level of fighting for the city had dwindled.

The Russian Ministry of Defense did not comment directly on fighting near Bakhmut, but said early Monday that a major Ukrainian operation had begun along multiple sections of the front line in the Donetsk region. The ministry said that the Ukrainian attack had been repelled, but its account could not be confirmed.


Igor Girkin, a prominent Russian pro-military blogger, at a protest in Moscow in 2019.Credit...Alexander Nemenov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Russian pro-military bloggers described a surge in fighting all along the front lines in Ukraine with urgency on Monday, but without the sort of panic some expressed last year when Kyiv’s forces made rapid advances in a counterattack that regained large swaths of territory.

The increased fighting — which U.S. officials have said is a possible indication that Kyiv’s long-planned counteroffensive against Russian forces had begun — was narrated by the Telegram accounts of Russian bloggers, who described heavy artillery fire and the movement of Western-made advanced battle tanks supplied by Ukraine’s allies.

Mikhail Zvinchuk, who writes under the pseudonym Rybar and has more than a million followers on the Telegram messaging app, was one of several bloggers who described intense fighting near the village of Novodonetske in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region. On Monday evening, he said Ukrainian soldiers in German-made Leopard 2 tanks had seized control of the village, which is near the town of Velyka Novosilka.

Accounts of the fighting by Mr. Zvinchuk and other Russian military bloggers could not immediately be verified.

Germany confirmed in late March that it had delivered Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, part of a batch of advanced equipment that Western allies pledged to assist Kyiv with a counteroffensive.

On Monday, Aleksandr Khodakovsky, a native of Donetsk and the commander of a Russian proxy group there, also described spotting Leopard tanks during the fighting at Novodonetske, where he said Ukrainian forces had “felt out our weak spots.”

Russian forces had inflicted losses on the Ukrainians, Mr. Khodakovsky wrote on Telegram, adding that “today the balance was in favor of the enemy, but it did not succeed in significantly pushing deep into our territory.”

There was no immediate confirmation from Ukraine’s military, and the bloggers’ did not offer photo evidence to back up their claims about Western-made tanks.

Even if their accounts are often skewed in Moscow’s favor, Russian military bloggers have emerged as immediate sources of battlefield developments in the 15-month war. Some are embedded with troops on the front line and have reliably posted about both Russian successes and failures as the war has dragged on.

A recent information blackout by the Ukrainian military has made the frontline situation particularly opaque, as Kyiv has sought to keep details about its operations under wraps to avoid telegraphing its tactical plans.

Igor Girkin, a former paramilitary commander who uses the nom de guerre Igor Strelkov on Telegram, said Russia’s forces have been preparing for an impending Ukrainian counterattack — unlike last year, he wrote, when they created “ideal conditions” for Kyiv’s forces to advance in the Kharkiv region.

But he warned that a significant breakthrough by Ukrainian forces in the area of Novodonetske would give Kyiv an opening to drive a wedge between Donetsk and Mariupol in southern Ukraine — cutting off communications between the two critical Russian-held cities.

“A lot depends on the training and stability of our troops in a given area, as well as on the adequacy of their command,” Mr. Girkin wrote. “If the enemy manages to break through deep enough and on a wide sector of the front (which it is trying to do), then its advantage in number of units and formations will be difficult to stop.”


President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia at the Kremlin on Thursday. His real voice appeared to have been used to create the fake announcement.Credit...Gavriil Grigorov/Sputnik, via Associated Press

A faked declaration of martial law and military mobilization by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia aired Monday on a number of Russian radio and television networks, an incident that the Kremlin described as a “hack.”

The bogus speech, which was broadcast on the Mir radio station and television networks, said Ukraine had invaded three border regions and urged their residents to evacuate to the Russian heartland.

The clip also depicted Mr. Putin declaring a general mobilization, saying all the power of the country needed to be harnessed to defeat a “dangerous and insidious enemy.”

The press service of Mir, a Russian public broadcaster, said in a statement released to the state news agency Tass that its radio and television channels had been illegally interrupted for a little more than a half-hour before being restored.

It was unclear who was behind the fake speech. Dmitri Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, told Tass that Mr. Putin “definitely” did not record any such emergency address and that an investigation was underway into what he called a “hack.”

The broadcast — which appeared to piece together genuine recordings of Mr. Putin’s voice to create a realistic spoof — coincided with a surge in Ukrainian attacks along the front line that may signal the start of Kyiv’s long-awaited counteroffensive.

The fake address — which claimed that the Ukrainian military had invaded three regions of Russia, including Belgorod — came after a series of attacks on Belgorod by militias aligned with Ukraine. The attacks, which have been claimed by two paramilitary groups made up of Russians who oppose the Kremlin, have prompted evacuations in some areas on Russian soil.

Alina Lobzina contributed reporting.


Credit...Finbarr O'Reilly for The New York Times

KYIV, Ukraine — To mount a successful counteroffensive after months of planning, Ukrainian troops will have to navigate mostly flat, unforgiving terrain and staunch Russian defenses.

Military analysts and Western officials have long thought that a counteroffensive would focus on southern Ukraine as part of a strategy by Kyiv to sever the land bridge between western Russia and occupied Crimea. The operation is expected to involve thousands of Ukrainian troops — including many trained by NATO forces and equipped with newer and more advanced Western equipment, like armored personnel carriers and tanks.

But no matter where Ukraine attacks along a front line that stretches for hundreds of miles, Russia’s defenses will be formidable. Moscow’s forces have had months to dig in, lay minefields and prepare entrenchments. Russian formations also have gotten increasingly adept at using drones to help pinpoint targets for artillery strikes. That has made it more challenging for Ukrainian forces, often under withering fire, to coordinate troop movements, tanks and artillery support effectively enough to achieve a breakthrough.

This type of battlefield coordination, known in military circles as “combined arms,” has been difficult for Ukrainian forces since Russia’s full-scale invasion last year. Ukrainian troops on the front lines often use different radio systems, which makes it harder for units to communicate. One reason a limited operation in Ukraine’s south stalled earlier this year was that ground troops could not talk to soldiers in accompanying tanks, said one soldier who was involved. Ukraine’s forces were unable to advance, and one service member was wounded by a friendly mine, said the soldier, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the operation.

But during successful Ukrainian offensives last year, such as around the northeastern region of Kharkiv in September and in the port city of Kherson in the fall, Kyiv’s military leaders have shown that they are capable of making quick decisions on the battlefield to take advantage of Russian vulnerabilities. During the battle around Kharkiv in September, for example, Ukrainian troops breached lightly defended Russian lines, advancing rapidly and seizing the upper hand in the region.


Credit...Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

A top official in Russia’s foreign ministry indicated that Moscow does not expect to agree to another extension of a deal that has allowed Ukraine to ship its grain across the Black Sea, an agreement seen as crucial for preventing famine in other parts of the world.

The pact, first brokered by Turkey and the United Nations last July, was most recently extended last month and is set to expire on July 18.

Asked on Monday about the chances of another extension, Sergey Vershinin, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, told Tass, a Russian state news agency, that “we do not see them.” But, he added, Russia was continuing consultations with U.N. representatives.

Russia has repeatedly threatened to withdraw from the deal, which has allowed Ukraine to transport cargo past Russian naval vessels that have blocked Ukraine’s ports. Moscow has complained that while Ukrainian food has made it to world markets, Russia’s sales of agricultural products have been hampered by Western sanctions.

On Monday, Mr. Vershinin also blamed Ukraine for “putting forward various kinds of requirements” for the agreement, which has been a rare example of cooperation between the countries since Russia began its full-scale invasion in February of last year.

Ukraine is a major exporter of grain and other food crops, and its inability to export them threatens food supplies in countries far from the war’s battlefields. A global food crisis developed after Russia’s invasion began, sending grain prices soaring as Ukraine was unable to export its supplies for the first few months of the war.


Cardinal Matteo Zuppi celebrates Mass last month in St. Peter’s Basilica for members of the Italian Bishops Conference.Credit...Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press

Pope Francis has sent an Italian cardinal to Ukraine on a two-day trip to discuss prospects for peace with the government in Kyiv, the Vatican said on Monday in a brief statement.

The Vatican offered few details about the trip by Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, saying only that the main goal was to “listen thoroughly to Ukrainian authorities regarding the possible ways to reach a just peace and foster gestures of humanity that contribute to ease up tensions.”

It was not immediately clear who the cardinal would be meeting and there was no immediate comment from the Ukrainian government, which has expressed skepticism about the pope’s attempts to position himself as a potential mediator in the 15-month war.

Francis bewildered the Ukrainian government and the Kremlin in late April with talk of a secret peace mission aimed at ending the war — an effort the Kremlin and Kyiv said they knew nothing about. Weeks later, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine met with Francis in the Vatican as part of a whirlwind visit to Rome.

Francis gave Mr. Zelensky a bronze olive branch, and the Ukrainian leader said that he had asked the pontiff to “condemn Russian crimes in Ukraine.”

Mr. Zelensky was asked afterward on Italian television whether the pope, who had sought to stake out an equidistant position between the views of Ukraine and Russia, could be a peacemaker between him and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. The Ukrainian president answered “with all respect for His Holiness,” Ukraine did not need mediators because “you can’t do mediation with Putin.”

The pope has tried to position himself as a potential peacemaker in a way that critics, including Ukrainian officials, argue is counterproductive to achieving not only a Ukrainian victory but also a real and just peace.

To preserve the Vatican’s traditional neutrality, Francis, while consistently expressing sympathy for the suffering of Ukrainians, initially made confusing and contradictory remarks about whether he blamed Mr. Putin for the invasion.

After meeting with Russian sympathizers in Hungary in late April, the pope thrust himself into the discussion about the war’s endgame, cryptically speaking about “a mission going on now, but it is not public yet” to bring peace, adding “when it is public I will talk about it.”


Ukrainian investigators in a makeshift prison and torture chamber in the bottom floor of an office building, one of the 11 detention facilities with torture chambers discovered in Kherson.Credit...Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

They beat prisoners relentlessly and tortured them with electric shocks, waterboarding and mock executions. Three people died in their custody. Yet such was their sense of impunity, the Russians who seized control of a detention center in southern Ukraine last year and filled it with 200 detainees were careless about concealing their identities.


Petro Zhadan, a former soldier, was held for 73 days and heavily beaten at a detention center in Kherson, Ukraine. “All my body was blue,” he said.Credit...Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times


Oleksii Sivak, a sailor who became an activist, was tortured with electric shocks and beatings during the Russian occupation of Kherson.Credit...Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times

Last week, Ukrainian prosecutors announced war crimes charges against four members of the Russian National Guard — the commander who ran the detention facility and three of his subordinates. They were accused in absentia for cruel treatment of civilians and violating the laws of war.

The case is one of the first to emerge from months of investigations by Ukrainian prosecutors in the southern region of Kherson, which Russian forces occupied for more than eight months until they were forced out by a Ukrainian counteroffensive in November. Investigators say they have uncovered hundreds of crimes that were carried out under the Russian occupation, including executions and deaths in custody, torture, sexual violence and beatings in the recaptured areas.

Investigators in the Kherson region have found 11 detention facilities with torture chambers where men and women were abused. The four men charged with war crimes oversaw the pretrial detention center at No. 3, Thermal Energy Street, in the center of the region’s main city, Kherson. Some of the victims helped identify them from photographs of the Russian National Guard unit that took over the detention center last summer. Prosecutors arranged for four of those victims to talk to journalists in Kyiv last week.

Oleksandr Chubko and Dyma Shapoval contributed reporting.

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