KYIV, June 12 (Reuters) - Ukraine said on Monday its troops had recaptured seven villages from Russian forces along an approximately 100-km (60-mile) front in the southeast since starting its long-anticipated counteroffensive last week.
The task of ending Russia's occupation of southern and eastern Ukraine is daunting, given Russia's numerical superiority in men, ammunition and air power, and the many months it has had to build deep defensive fortifications, especially in southern Ukraine.
Despite rain and fierce fighting, Ukrainian forces were making progress on the battlefield, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a video address on Monday night.
"The battles are fierce, but we have movement and that is crucial," Zelenskiy said. "The enemy's losses are exactly what we need."
Soldiers were seen in video holding the Ukrainian flag in the village of Storozheve, along the Mokri Yaly River which flows northward out of Russian-held territory. Reuters confirmed the location.
On Sunday, Ukraine said its forces heading south had liberated three other nearby villages along the Mokri Yaly: Blahodatne, Neskuchne and Makarivka.
Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said in a Telegram post late on Monday that Ukrainian forces had also recaptured Levadne and Novodarivka, around 10 km (6 miles) west of the Mokri Yaly, as well as Lobkove, southeast of the city of Zaporizhzhia.
Maliar said troops had advanced a total of 6.5 km and taken control of an area of 90 square kilometres (35 square miles). The reclaimed territory is just a fraction of the 40,000 square miles that remains under Russia's occupation.
Maliar added that the seven settlements were taken over the past week, without giving details of precisely when.
It was not possible to verify all the battlefield claims.
Moscow has yet to officially acknowledge any Ukrainian advances. But prominent Russian military bloggers said Ukrainian forces had in fact taken Blahodatne, Neskuchne and Makarivka, and were pushing on southward.
Russia's defence ministry on Monday repeated regular assertions of the past week that it had repelled attempted offensives in the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions.
Eight Ukrainian drones were destroyed and an ammunition depot hit in eastern Ukraine, the ministry said.
[1/5] A view of troops' movement in Storozheve, Donetsk region, Ukraine, June 12, 2023 in this screengrab obtained from social media video. aeronavtyua via Telegram/via REUTERS
The push is already Ukraine's most rapid advance for seven months, though still short of a major breakthrough.
The furthest advance claimed by Kyiv leaves its forces still some 90 km (55 miles) from the Azov Sea coast and the prize of cutting Russia's "land bridge" to Crimea, the peninsula that Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014, eight years before its full-scale invasion of its neighbour.
A Ukrainian defence spokesperson said Russia had blown up a dam on the Mokri Yaly to make it harder for Ukrainian forces to thrust farther south. Last week a dam was destroyed on the much larger Dnipro River, causing a humanitarian disaster in parts of the south.
Ukrainian forces have also launched assaults at other locations along the long front line, probing for Russian weaknesses, though it has given few details so far.
Ukraine is banking on the tens of billions of dollars' worth of weaponry, training and intelligence it has received from the West, combined with its own battlefield resolve, tactics and the motivation of driving an invader from its own land, to give it the edge.
It also knows it may have to show significant progress over the summer to maintain the same level of Western military, financial and political support, and one day have a chance of recovering from the loss and devastation inflicted by Moscow.
The leaders of France, Germany and Poland - the so-called Weimar Triangle - met in Paris on Monday to discuss Ukraine and other topics.
"We have intensified the delivery of ammunitions, weapons and armed vehicles ... We'll continue in coming days and weeks," French President Emmanuel Macron, who in recent days said he had spoken with Zelenskiy confirming the start of the counteroffensive, told a press conference.
Asked whether Germany agreed Ukraine needed to be given security guarantees at a NATO summit in July, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said: "It's clear we need this and we need it in a very concrete way."
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday said it was too soon to say exactly where Ukraine's counteroffensive was going but Washington was confident Kyiv would continue to have success.
Some Western military analysts said it was too early to draw conclusions, and the skirmishes so far might show Ukraine is still just testing Russian defences.
The U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War said Ukraine was attempting "an extraordinarily difficult tactical operation – a frontal assault against prepared defensive positions, further complicated by a lack of air superiority", and that initial assaults should not be overinterpreted.
Russia has yet to face a full onslaught and its unconvincing battlefield performance in the past 15 months has led to frequent changes of command and public arguments with the private militias summoned to fight alongside the army.
President Vladimir Putin marked Russia's national day with an award ceremony in the Kremlin but made only glancing mention in his speech of the war he had unleashed, at enormous cost to his own citizens in lost lives, money and international relations.
Reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Tom Balmforth in Kyiv, Anna Pruchnicka in Gdansk and Lidia Kelly in Melbourne; Writing by Kevin Liffey, Alex Richardson and Grant McCool; Editing by Peter Graff, Conor Humphries, Mark Heinrich and Lisa Shumaker
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