THE Ukrainian counter-offensive to oust Russian troops from the region has begun, according to one of President Zelensky’s most-senior advisers.
Mikhail Podolyak, head of the presidential office, said today that operations to push Russia back to Ukraine’s borders have already been underway “for days”.
Speaking to Italian radio station Rai1, Mr Podolyak said: “It’s an intense war on 1500km of border, but the actions have already started.”
It is unclear which actions he was referring to, but Ukrainian troops are known to be attacking around the flanks of Bakhmut in an attempt to surround the city.
Bakhmut was recently seized by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group thugs, after a battle which saw many Wagner members running like “rats into a trap”.
Mr Podolyak added: “This is not a “single event” that will begin at a specific hour of a specific day with a solemn cutting of the red ribbon.
“These are dozens of different actions to destroy the Russian occupation forces in different directions, which have already been taking place yesterday, are taking place today and will continue tomorrow.
“Intensive destruction of enemy logistics is also a counteroffensive.”
It came as Prigozhin, commander of the Wagner group, said his men will leave Bakhmut by June 1 after a year-long battle to take the city.
The defence will be left to elements of the regular Russian army, Mr Prigozhin said, who he has previously criticised for abandoning their posts in the face of Ukrainian attacks.
Bakhmut, a crossroads city in the Donbas, holds little tactical significance but has become politically important for both sides as they attempt to paint themselves as being on the path to victory.
Ukraine denies that Russia is in full control of the city, with General Oleksandr Syrskyi – head of Ukrainian ground forces – saying his men are attempting to encircle troops stationed there.
Podolyak’s words also come against a backdrop of increased strikes on Russian positions, including with British long-range Storm Shadow cruise missiles.
Ukraine claims that ammo dumps, troop concentrations, command posts and artillery positions are being regularly hit in what military experts refer to as “shaping operations” ahead of the offensive.
Kyiv’s allies are also continuing to step up support for Ukraine, including a coalition of countries aimed at providing sought-after F-16 fighter jets for its air forces.
The UK has agreed to train Ukrainian pilots to use the jets, which President Zelensky has been requesting since the first weeks of the war.
Mr Podolyak added: “Today we have the ‘Storm Shadow’ long-range missiles, the Leopards, the anti-missile systems that France and Italy gave us. The F-16s will finally allow us to close the airspace.
“The paradox is that if we had had them a year ago the war would have already ended.”
Ukraine has been promising to unleash a spring offensive for months, as experts warned of the dangers of going too early.
It’s expected they’ll use new western tanks to blast through Russian defensive lines in a Desert Storm-style assault.
They will be rolling into battle with key new pieces of kit, such as Challenger 2 and Leopard 2 main battle tanks, Stryker and Bradley armoured vehicles, and new artillery systems.
War analysts at the Conflict Intelligence Team said the main goal of the fresh counter offensive will be to “unblock” Bakhmut.
“The vehicles are already on the territory of Ukraine at the disposal of its military and may be used in combat in the nearest future,” the team wrote in their situation report on March 28.
“We expect that the primary goal of the Ukrainian counter-offensive will be to unblock Bakhmut.”
Other analysts say Ukraine could try to break through in Zaporizhzhia, cutting off Russia’s crucial land bridge to Crimea.
That would open the door to a full-scale assault to retake the peninsula, which Putin annexed in 2014.