KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian military commanders said Friday that their troops had recaptured more territory from Russian forces at the scene of the war's longest and bloodiest battle, for the eastern city of Bakhmut, but it wasn't clear if this marked the start of Kyiv's long-expected counteroffensive.
Russia's Defense Ministry, meanwhile, said Ukrainian forces had stepped up attacks north of the region while denying speculation by Russian military bloggers that the Kyiv forces had achieved "defense breakthroughs."
The 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) of territory that Ukrainian forces south of Bakhmut retook this week represented a significant gain and will protect an important supply chain, according to commanders of Ukraine's 3rd Separate Assault Brigade, a special forces unit that led the attack.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he met with the top military commanders Friday, noting that Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi reported his forces "stopped the enemy and even pushed him back in some directions."
In his nightly address to the Ukrainian people, Zelenskyy praised his troops and noted the low morale of the Russian forces.
"The occupiers are already mentally prepared for defeat. They have already lost this war in their minds," he said. "We must push them every day so that their sense of defeat turns into their retreat, their mistakes, their losses."
In a statement on Telegram on Friday, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar confirmed that Ukrainian forces gained ground around Bakhmut, reiterating statements from military commanders earlier this week.
In Washington, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. has assessed that Bakhmut remains contested territory.
"Ukrainians have not given up their defense of Bakhmut and the Russians haven't given up their attempts to take Bakhmut," Kirby said. "Every single day, the lines change back and forth. I mean, sometimes block by block."
The U.S. maintains that Bakhmut has limited strategic value but that Russia has absorbed an enormous loss of troops and weaponry in the battle for the former salt-mining town that has been grinding on for eight months.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the millionaire owner of Russia's private military contractor Wagner who is a frequent critic of the Russian military, slammed it again for losing ground around Bakhmut and exposing his forces battling for the city.
In a video statement Friday, Prigozhin mocked the Russian Defense Ministry's report claiming that its forces regrouped to take more favorable positions, saying they effectively fled and "our flanks are crumbling."
He warned that the Ukrainian forces have reclaimed key heights around the city and effectively unblocked the key supply link to Bakhmut. Prigozhin again accused the military leadership of refusing to provide sufficient ammunition to Wagner.
"You must immediately stop lying," Prigozhin said, addressing Russia's military leaders. "If you fled, you must prepare new defensive lines."
Prigozhin — who seems to use harsh criticism to pressure the Kremlin for more support and improve his stature — alleged the Defense Ministry's failure to protect Wagner's flanks amounted to high treason and could result in a "great tragedy" for Russia.
Apparently denying Prigozhin's claim of abandonment, Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Russian airborne units are still supporting ground forces to "stop the attempts of the Ukrainian armed forces to counterattack on the flanks."
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, explained the spat as being "reflective of increased panic in the Russian information space over speculations about planned Ukrainian counteroffensives." This indicates increased concern among leaders of Wagner and the Russian Defense Ministry as well as "reflecting Kremlin guidance to avoid downplaying Ukrainian successes," it said.
Ukrainian military officials have dismissed speculation that the fighting and forward movement in Bakhmut signaled that its anticipated counteroffensive was underway. Zelenskyy said in remarks broadcast Thursday that Kyiv was delaying the campaign because it lacks enough Western weapons. Some saw the comments as designed to keep Russia guessing about Ukraine's next move.
Addressing the nation Friday evening, Zelenskyy said more arms were coming "to defeat the aggressor and restore peace."
The territorial gains occurred near the Siversky-Donets canal, between the villages of Ivanivske and Kurdiumivka, according to a commander of the 1st Assault Battalion of the 3rd Separate Assault Brigade. He spoke on condition he be referred to only by his call sign of "Rollo," in line with Ukrainian military protocol.
"This was the enemy's bridgehead, which they intended to use in their future attacks along the canal, in the direction of Kostiantynivka," he said. "We had to neutralize the enemy and push them to the other side of the canal."
Another commander and a military spokesman corroborated his account.
Kostiantynivka is part of an important logistics chain that leads to the city of Kramatorsk.
Rollo said the gains followed other successes, including one that secured an access road near Khromove, north of Bakhmut, and another that allowed Ukrainian forces to reclaim lost positions in the Industrial College inside Bakhmut city.
The assault south of Bakhmut was followed by a reported increase in Ukrainian offensive actions near the city of Soledar on Thursday, Russia's Defense Ministry said. Russia repelled 26 Ukrainian attacks carried out by over 1,000 soldiers, the ministry said, adding that up to 40 tanks were involved.
The slow and grinding fight for Bakhmut has been costly for both sides, with Ukraine seeking to deny Russia any territorial gains despite its marginal strategic significance. Ukrainian forces are stationed in the city, while Russian troops are attacking from the north, east and south.
In other fighting, at least two people were killed and 22 injured elsewhere in the country since Thursday, according to figures from the Ukrainian President's Office.
Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said a Russian strike hit Kramatorsk, where some Ukrainian military units are based, destroying a school and residential building. Russian shelling hit 11 cities and villages in the region, killing 12 civilians, he said.