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Ukraine claims first gains in its counteroffensive against Russia

Kyiv said its military had retaken four villages in the eastern Donetsk region as it seeks to push south and threaten the Kremlin's main defensive lines.
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ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — Ukraine has claimed the first battlefield gains since the launch of its counteroffensive against Russian forces, saying it liberated a string of villages over the weekend after fierce fighting on the war's southern and eastern front lines.

Ukraine’s 35th brigade posted video Monday of soldiers raising the blue and yellow national flag over what they say is the retaken village of Storozheve in the eastern Donetsk region.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said its military had also retaken three other nearby villages as it seeks to push south and threaten Russia's main defensive lines.

“It will be the same with every settlement until we liberate all Ukrainian land,” Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said.

The gains were celebrated on social media. But they are small-scale victories in the early days of what is expected to be a long and difficult effort to drive the Kremlin’s forces out of occupied land across the country's south and east.

“Appropriate counteroffensive and defensive actions are taking place in Ukraine. I will not say in detail at what stage they are,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said during a weekend news conference in Kyiv, his first public acknowledgement of the campaign.

Ukrainian officials have asked for operational silence to avoid compromising their battlefield efforts, but in recent days reported their first successes.

Russian officials have not confirmed the losses, but the country's increasingly influential military bloggers acknowledged the initial setbacks — beginning with the village of Blahodatne.

Valeriy Shershen, a Ukrainian military spokesman, said that Russian forces were entrenched in the village club there and were driven out only after house-to-house combat.

“After the fighting ended, people came out of the basements and greeted their liberators. It was a very poignant moment that inspires and creates motivation to move forward,” he said in a statement. 

Ukrainian forces claim to have liberated the village of Blahodatne in the Donetsk region Sunday as part of a push south.
Ukrainian forces claim to have liberated the village of Blahodatne in the Donetsk region Sunday as part of a push south.Oleksy Dovbusha / Ukrainian 68th Separate Hunting Brigade

The launch of the counteroffensive has also seen the battlefield debut of western-supplied armored vehicles, including German Leopard tanks and American-made Bradley fighting vehicles.

Video footage reviewed by NBC News showed Ukrainian forces using Bradleys in combat for the first time near the small city of Orikhiv in the Zaporizhzhia region, which has seen some of the fiercest fighting of the counteroffensive so far.

One Bradley was disabled after taking a direct hit, but its heavy armor shielded troops inside from the worst of the impact. Soldiers are seen in the video throwing smoke canisters to hide their escape before evacuating to a second Bradley.

Footage released by the Russian defense ministry shows the aftermath of the same skirmish, with both Bradleys and Leopards left disabled or partially destroyed. It was not clear what losses Russian forces may have suffered during the encounter.  

Anton Borshch, a Ukrainian soldier who recently came off the front line in the east, told NBC News that the Western vehicles were making a significant difference.

“This is more maneuverable equipment, of better quality, more accurate, which allows us to clear the enemy’s tree lines and fortifications much faster. My guys ride a Bradley, they calmly clear the landing and can also evacuate dead and wounded from the battlefield,” he said.

Separate footage released by Ukraine’s 59th Brigade showed a pair of American Humvees with mounted heavy machine guns taking part in an attack on a Russian bunker near the city of Avdiivka in Donetsk.

Moscow says its forces are holding the line against Ukrainian attacks.

Over the weekend, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu awarded medals to troops he said were successful in destroying NATO-supplied vehicles.

But far from the front lines in Ukraine, Shoigu is mired in an increasingly bitter political battle with Yevgeny Prigozhin, the volatile head of the Wagner mercenary group.

Prigozhin said Sunday he would defy orders that his mercenaries sign formal contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry, a move that would increase the Kremlin’s control over Wagner’s private army.

“Wagner will not sign any contracts with Shoigu,” Prigozhin said, accusing him of poor management. It was the latest in a series of angry broadsides the mercenary chief has made against Russia’s military leadership.

However, at the end of his defiant statement, Prigozhin reiterated that his forces remained completely loyal to “the supreme commander-in-chief” — Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Ukrainian counteroffensive began last week but was overshadowed by the destruction of a major strategic dam on the Dnieper River. The resulting torrent of water has inundated dozens of villages and towns in the southern war zone, leaving many people stranded and forcing thousands to be evacuated by boat.

On Monday, Ukrainian Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko said 10 people died in the Kherson and the Mykolaiv regions as a result of the dam's collapse, and that 42 people, including seven children, were considered missing.

The Kremlin-installed head of the Kherson region, Vladimir Saldo, said Friday that at least eight people were among the dead on the Russian-controlled side of the river.