Russia’s Defense Ministry and the pro-war Telegram channels are circulating combat footage from Velyka Novosilka, claiming that it heralds nothing less than the start of a large-scale Ukrainian counteroffensive. But is this really true? Meduza’s military analysts take a close look at the evidence, the “known unknowns,” and what plausible scenarios might arise in the balance.
What’s happening at the front?
On June 4 and the following night, the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) launched an assault along the Southern Donetsk direction, on the boundary of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions near Vuhledar. Russia’s Defense Ministry described this as the start of a “large-scale offensive,” claiming that eight Ukrainian battalions (4,000–5,000 troops in all) took part in the assault. But what’s documented by the drone footage (published by the ministry itself and by the pro-war Russian Telegram channels) looks like several attacks by formations no large than a company of 100 men. Judging by the footage, the AFU’s maximal gains in shifting the frontline were about 1.5 kilometers (or just under a mile). The exact site of the battle documented on video is here.
The AFU has lost some equipment: videos circulating in Russia show burning Ukrainian armored vehicles. The follow-up photos and videos published later also show five disabled International MaxxPRO mine resistant armored vehicles, suggesting that the Russian forces retained control of the area near Velyka Novosilka, a settlement in the Donetsk region’s Volnovakha district.
Alexander Khodakovsky, the Putin-appointed deputy commander of the National Guard in the Russian-annexed “Donetsk Republic,” says that the AFU have been successful on the segment between Velyka Novosilka and Vuhledar. (Neither side has yet published any footage from this area.) According to Khodakovsky, the Ukrainian defenders were able to temporarily disrupt the Russian sides’ communications by electromagnetic means, and to wedge themselves into the Russian positions in the interim.
The Ukrainian command denies conducting a counteroffensive
The AFU’s directorate of strategic communications has released a statement, in which it said that the Russian side had increased its “psycho-informational” warfare efforts. The Ukrainian military warns against “spreading misleading information” about the situation at the front:
Aiming to demoralize Ukrainians and to deceive the public (including their own population), Russian propagandists will disseminate misleading information about the counteroffensive, its directions, and the Ukrainian army’s losses. Even if there isn’t any counteroffensive. For this purpose, old photos and videos of disabled equipment, dead bodies, and captive troops have been dredged up, along with other fake materials.
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Is the counteroffensive underway or not?
For the time being, what we see definitely isn’t the main thrust of the expected counteroffensive. This might be combat reconnaissance in advance of dealing a powerful blow, or a series of blows. Another possible reading of the recent action is that it might be part of the preparations taking place along the entire frontline, from the Bakhmut vicinity and Shebekino in Russia’s Belgorod region to the banks of Dnipro in the Kherson region of Ukraine. The purpose of these operations is to tie up the Russian reserves and to stretch thin the invading army’s defense lines.
According to Russia’s Defense Ministry, the Ukrainian assault by Velyka Novosilka used two out of the 20 brigades created specifically for conducting a large-scale counteroffensive in the spring of 2023, and armed for that purpose with the latest military equipment supplied by Ukraine’s Western partners. The appearance of these brigades in battle could, therefore, signal the start of the counteroffensive. But there’s no documentary evidence that this is indeed what’s happening. The equipment shown in the circulating footage has been seen in action earlier. Based on the recent Pentagon leak, we already know that both new and pre-existing Ukrainian brigades have the kind of equipment we see in these visuals.
At the same time, we haven’t yet seen modern Western tanks or the Bradley and Stryker fighting vehicles (the hallmarks of the newer Ukrainian brigades) in the existing footage.
Nevertheless, action by Velyka Novosilka may well be part of a main thrust directed towards Volnovakha and further, towards Mariupol. If this were the chosen direction, it would have some evident advantages: the liberation of Mariupol, now 90 kilometers from the frontline, would have great political importance; and by advancing towards the Azov Sea coast, the AFU could disrupt the Russian supply along the Taganrog–Mariupol–Berdyansk highway. But there are also some disadvantages to this plan: as it moves south of Velyka Novosilka and Vuhledar, the eastern flank of the Ukrainian grouping will inevitably extend in length, becoming more vulnerable to strikes from the direction of Donetsk and the Russian border.
The terrain in this area doesn’t lend itself to a successful offensive, particularly in the conditions of Russia’s aerial advantage: the 90 kilometers separating Velyka Novosilka from Mariupol stretch over a bare steppe. Last fall, the AFU already had serious problems in advancing on similar terrain in the Kherson region, on the Western bank of Dnipro.
It’s hard, therefore, to say whether combat by Velyka Novosilka is really a harbinger of a larger counteroffensive along the same direction. What’s certain is that it has some connection to a larger plan, just as the recent weeks’ missile strikes on Mariupol and Berdyansk must also be a part of it. None of it, though, rules out that the main thrust of the incipient counteroffensive might be aimed elsewhere entirely.