May 13, 2023

Ukraine Mounts Major Offensive Against Russia in the South: Live Updates

Kyiv June 8, 8:36 p.m.

Moscow June 8, 8:36 p.m.

Washington June 8, 1:36 p.m.

A senior U.S. official said that fighting appeared to be a main thrust in Kyiv's long-awaited counteroffensive to retake land captured by Russia.

Recent attacks suggest Ukrainian forces are increasingly on the offensive.

Kherson is hit by Russian shelling hours after a Zelensky visit.

Zelensky visits the flood zone after calling for a ‘clear and quick global response.’

Tons of fish are left dead as water levels continue to fall at the Kakhovka reservoir.

Satellite images show the scale of flooding in communities near the Dnipro River.

‘It's a horror’: Downstream from the dam, residents watch as houses float out to sea.

Ukrainian forces mounted a major attack overnight on Thursday in the southern region of Zaporizhzhia, as Ukraine's Army went on the offensive on multiple fronts in an operation that carries high stakes for Kyiv and its Western allies.

A senior U.S. official said on Thursday that the attack appeared to be a main thrust of a much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive. Russia claimed its forces had withstood a Ukrainian assault involving tanks and armored vehicles, saying it had so far thwarted Ukraine's attempts to recapture land. Kyiv remained quiet on the intensified fighting.

For months, Kyiv officials have been mobilizing new units, gathering weapons and training for what its leaders have billed as a major counteroffensive aimed at pushing Russian forces back and retaking occupied territory.

In recent days, Russia has reported that Ukrainian forces have launched attacks on front lines in the east and south. The fighting in the east, in the Donetsk region, prompted American authorities this week to say that the counteroffensive may have begun.

Taken together, these attacks suggest Ukrainian forces are increasingly on the offensive, though it remains unclear whether the assaults on Russian lines are preludes to a larger push or mark the start of the much-anticipated counteroffensive Kyiv's generals have said they have planned.

U.S. officials, including the one who spoke on Thursday, requested anonymity to discuss operational details.

Michael Kofman, the director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Va., said that Ukraine had amassed Western-provided Leopard tanks and American-made Bradley fighting vehicles near Zaporizhzhia, in a possible sign that a major assault there was underway.

The Russian Defense Ministry said on Thursday that Moscow's forces had repelled a Ukrainian attack near Novodarivka, in the southern Zaporizhzhia region. Russia's defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, said that forces of Ukraine's 47th Mechanized Brigade including dozens of armored vehicles "made an attempt to break through Russia's defense" but that Moscow's air and ground forces repelled the attack.

The Russian account could not be verified. There was no immediate comment from Ukrainian officials, who have said they will remain silent on details of the counteroffensive for operational secrecy.

U.S. and Ukrainian officials have said the counteroffensive would involve attacks on multiple locations, as Kyiv's forces push forward, looking for vulnerabilities in Russia's defensive lines.

Pro-war Russian military bloggers, who have become a major source of information from the front lines, acknowledged an intensification of Ukrainian attacks on the Zaporizhzhia front but claimed on Thursday morning that Russian defenses in the area were holding, aided by sustained strikes by the Russian Air Force.

"After a day of continuous fighting, there's indirect information about insignificant puncturing of defenses, there are no breakthroughs," the former Russian paramilitary commander Igor Girkin wrote on the Telegram messaging app on Thursday morning. It was impossible to immediately verify his claim.

Britain's defense intelligence agency said in its daily assessment on Thursday that "heavy fighting continues along multiple sectors of the front." It added: "In most areas Ukraine holds the initiative."

Ukraine has spent months preparing for a counteroffensive, bolstered by fresh deliveries of sophisticated weapons, ammunition and pledges of support from its Western allies.

Billions of dollars worth of weapons — including German-made Leopard 2s and Bradleys — were rushed to Ukraine for use in their campaign. Crews were quickly trained; Britain, the United States and other allies trained nine of 12 newly formed and equipped brigades expected to take part in the fighting, alongside other Ukrainian units.

Western support has been solid so far but is not guaranteed in the long term. The U.S. budget for military assistance, for example, is expected to run out by around September.

If the Ukrainian Army fails to break through Russia's mine belts, tank traps and trench lines despite the outpouring of aid, support in the West for arming Kyiv's forces could shrink — and Kyiv could come under pressure from allies to enter serious negotiations to end or freeze the conflict.

But the table-flat terrain with little cover along parts of the southern front — which leaves any grouping of troops or armored vehicles immediately vulnerable to enemy artillery — and extensive Russian defenses built up over months render it a formidable task for Ukraine's military.

Adding to the challenges for both armies is the destruction of the Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine this week, which has caused widespread flooding in the partially occupied Kherson region that could erode some of Russia's defensive positions but also make it harder for Ukrainian forces to advance there. But military experts have said they do not believe that area — which is to the southwest of Zaporizhzhia — will be an immediate focus of the counteroffensive, and Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has said that the dam disaster will not affect Kyiv's military plans.

Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting.

— Eric Schmitt, Anatoly Kurmanaev and Andrew E. Kramer

Russian forces shelled the flood-stricken city of Kherson on Thursday, striking close to an evacuation point, only hours after President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the city to witness the aftermath of the destruction of a dam on the Dnipro River earlier this week.

Hundreds of people who were gathered near an evacuation point at Ship Square, in the heart of the city, scrambled for cover when explosions rang out, witnesses said, describing multiple strikes in and around the square.

Volunteers, medics, emergency workers and rescue teams involved in coordinating aid efforts have been meeting on higher ground near the square, which is itself flooded but is being used as an evacuation point because it is a known landmark.

Nine people were injured in the shelling near the evacuation point, among them one policeman, one emergency worker and one volunteer from Germany, according to Oleksandr Prokudin, the head of Kherson regional military administration.

The explosions hit at around 2 p.m. local time. "Leave, leave," one man shouted, according to a witness. A young man held a bandage on the wounded head of an older man, and blood dripped down the younger man's arm as he tried to offer words of comfort, witnesses said.

Serhiy Ludensky, a volunteer from an animal care center, was on a boat near Ship Square when the shelling hit a building close by, he said. He said he could hear people screaming. "There was nowhere to hide," he said. The people on the boat managed to break down the door of a flooded building to wait for the explosions to stop.

Kristina Berdynskykh, a journalist from Kherson, had just finished an interview with a 14-year-old boy who escaped from occupied territory by boat with five members of his family, when the first explosions echoed over the waters.

"We just tried to hide by the nearest wall, but someone told us it is unsafe and we should move to another place, and I began to run to my colleagues from other media," she said. They finally found a building they could hide in for more than 30 minutes before they emerged.

Ship Square was one of several areas in the city of Kherson targeted by the Russian forces on Thursday, according to Ukrainian officials and witnesses.

Ukrainian officials accused Russian soldiers of opening fire on people trying to evacuate from the flooded city of Oleshky, which lies on the Russian-controlled eastern bank of the Dnipro River.

A New York Times photographer was on a boat in the flooded Korabel neighborhood of the city when he saw at least two waves of shelling hit nearby, around 10 minutes apart. The second attack hit a barge near a bridge that links the island neighborhood with the mainland.

Brendan Hoffman contributed reporting.

— Marc Santora and Maria Varenikova

ODESA, Ukraine — President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine visited the flood-stricken Kherson region on Thursday, where rescue efforts pushed ahead after the destruction of a dam on the Dnipro River, and after he called for "a clear and quick global response" to the disaster.

An explosion early Tuesday at the Kakhovka dam sent a torrent of water from a reservoir upstream coursing down the river, flooding much of the Ukrainian-controlled city of Kherson and dozens of settlements on both sides of the Dnipro, an active war zone that cuts through Russian- and Ukrainian-controlled territory.

"I visited a crossing point where people are being evacuated from flooded areas," Mr. Zelensky said in a statement on the Telegram messaging app, in which he thanked rescue workers. "Our task is to protect lives and help people as much as possible."

As of Thursday morning, the average flood level in the Kherson region stood at more than 18 feet, Ukrainian regional officials said, adding that about 230 square miles remained underwater in a region that spreads across 11,000 square miles.

Flooding spread to the Mykolaiv region as a river overflowed, leaving homes and businesses submerged. A 53-year-old man from the village of Vasylivka died in the floods, Serhiy Shaikhet, the chief of police in the Mykolaiv region, said in a statement.

Of the area underwater, 32 percent is on the Ukrainian-controlled west bank and 68 percent on the Russian-controlled east bank, said Oleksandr Prokudin, the head of Ukraine's regional military administration in Kherson.

Russian-appointed officials in the occupied city of Nova Kakhovka, adjacent to the dam, said that five people had died in the flooding, the Russian state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported. Dozens more in Russian territory were hospitalized, officials said, but the full scale of the toll may not be known for days until floodwaters recede.

The Dnipro marks a dividing line between Russian and Ukrainian forces in parts of the region, and officials and residents said that Russian shelling across the river had impeded humanitarian efforts.

On Wednesday, Mr. Zelensky called for "a clear and quick global response" to the flooding and criticized international agencies that were "not capable of taking action."

"Every death over there marks an indictment of the existing international mosaic, of international organizations which have gotten out of the habit of saving lives," Mr. Zelensky said on Telegram.

During peacetime, it is not uncommon for international aid agencies to mobilize quickly and organize a relief effort, as they did after the deadly earthquakes struck Syria and Turkey in February. But providing assistance is much more complicated in a war zone.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Twitter on Wednesday that its teams in Ukraine were "working around the clock" to assist and evacuate those affected by floods, and assessing what could be done to support the humanitarian response.

Residents said that intense shelling of Ukrainian-controlled territory in the flood zone had continued since the dam broke early Tuesday, with some describing fleeing the area under fire. Mr. Prokudin said that Ukraine recorded 353 shells from Russian mortars, artillery, rocket systems, drones, tanks and aircraft into the region on Tuesday.

On Thursday, the Ukrainian authorities said they had evacuated almost 2,200 people from the Kherson flood zone, including more than 100 children, and had set up nine evacuation points. But the State Emergency Service also warned of the dangers of mines and unexploded ammunition being dislodged by floodwaters.

On the Russian-occupied side of the river, about 4,500 people had been evacuated as of Thursday, the Russian state-run Tass news agency said on Telegram, citing Kremlin-appointed officials in the region. The total number brought to safety remains a fraction of the roughly 41,000 people on both sides of the Dnipro estimated by Ukraine to be at risk from the flooding.

President Emmanuel Macron of France spoke with Mr. Zelensky on Wednesday and said that his country would be sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine "very quickly," including a first convoy of around 10 tons of supplies Kyiv has asked for, like water purification tools and portable cisterns.

Aurelien Breeden and David Kurkovskiy contributed reporting.

— Marc Santora, Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Ben Shpigel

MARYANSKE, Ukraine — About half a mile out from the shore, muddy waves lapped at the new line marking the water's edge. At a bay nearby, a few people walked across the newly exposed mud, stopping occasionally to dig in the sand.

By Thursday morning, the water level of the Kakhovka reservoir had dropped more than three meters since the Kakhovka dam was destroyed on Tuesday. The fall had exposed half a mile of mud flats and stranded tons of fish along the shoreline, Ukrainian officials and villagers said.

The rapid drop in the water level had left shoals of fish dying in the mud the morning after the dam was ruined. The village of Maryanske, 55 miles north of the destroyed dam, is famous for its fish market and fish restaurants but the market has been closed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Now, villagers who had still managed to make a living by fishing were watching their livelihood disappear as well, said the head of the village, Viktor Nedria.

"The market is already dead but now there will be no fishing," he said, "and we don't know how many people will stay here at all."

Local officials warned that the dead fish represented a health hazard and should not be sold to customers. Volunteers had cleared some 1,900 pounds of fish along this part of the shore, said Yevhen Sytnychenko, the head of the civil-military administration of Kryvyi Rih, a city north of the destroyed dam.

An expanse of muddy sludge was laid bare where the water of the reservoir had receded from one small beach where Mr. Sytnychenko stopped to speak to journalists.

He described the consequences of the dam's destruction as "catastrophic" for his region, not least because the reservoir is a key source of drinking water for much of the surrounding region. For now, the water pumps were still working, but Ukrainian officials do not know the full extent of the damage to the dam, which is in Russian hands, and how low the water will fall.

"The water is still flowing out," he said. "It did not stop yet."

— Carlotta Gall and Oleksandr Chubko

New satellite images released by Planet Labs late on Wednesday offer some of the clearest glimpses yet of the scale of flooding in cities and villages downstream from the Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine, which was destroyed on Tuesday.

While thousands in affected areas have been evacuated, the total number of people brought to safety remains a fraction of the roughly 41,000 on both sides of the Dnipro River who Ukrainian officials have estimated were at risk from the flooding.

Floodwaters inundated low-lying neighborhoods of Kherson, the Ukrainian-held regional capital about 40 miles downstream from the dam. Waters rose about 10 feet above normal in parts of the city, reaching the rooftops of houses.

Many areas on higher ground were untouched by the floodwaters, while rescuers in boats pulled stranded residents from their roofs or upper floors in neighborhoods near the river's banks.

Residents of the Russian-occupied town of Oleshky, on the eastern bank of the Dnipro, pleaded for help in chat groups and searched for missing loved ones. The exiled Ukrainian mayor of the city said the town was about 85 percent flooded.

On the Telegram messaging app, a Russian official described Oleshky as the "most difficult situation" and said it was "practically completely flooded."

Korsunka, a Russian-controlled town around five miles downstream of the dam, is one of several inundated villages on the east bank. A reporter on Russia's state-controlled Channel 1 rowed a boat through the streets of Korsunka and said that rescues were now possible only by water.

— Lauren Leatherby

KHERSON REGION, Ukraine — A house. A child's bed. A dead cow and a ruined car. They are evidence of lives upended by the Kakhovka dam's destruction, gently drifting out into the Black Sea.

Natalia Kamenetska, who lives on a bluff overlooking the Dnipro River, around 60 miles downstream from the ruined dam, has watched from the shore as the waters in front of her slowly rose, the devastation upriver hinted at in the debris floating past.

"Everything washes by," she said.

Her village, Stanislav, was under Russian occupation until last fall. It has been bombarded repeatedly by Russian forces since they were forced to retreat when Ukrainian troops recaptured territory in the Kherson region.

Evidence of the fighting is all around her. Burned-out tanks and armored vehicles line the road on the way to her home. Just outside the village, the tail of an unexploded S-300 Russian missile rises out of an emerald-green lagoon. Another missile is embedded in a field of red poppies and wildflowers.

But it was not an explosion that awoke Ms. Kamenetska on Wednesday. It was her husband, who pointed out the window at what he thought was a house floating past. By Wednesday afternoon, a dozen houses dislodged by flooding upstream could be seen from the shores of southern Kherson, like bobbing buoys across the delta.

The Ukrainian military warned residents along the coast about the "rapid flow of debris, fragments of various objects, boats, even building structures" being carried by floodwaters, adding that land mines may have been moved in the deluge.

Before the war, she said, the river brought communities together as a common source of food and recreation. Now, it is a front line that divides Ukrainian friends and families — the west bank held by Ukraine and the east bank held by Russian forces.

"For me, it's despair that we can't help people who have been waiting there," Ms. Kamenetska said, referring to those stranded by floodwaters on the Russian-controlled side. "They were waiting for liberation but now they’re suffering."

Mykola Shuliuk, 68, lives a few miles away from Stanislav in the coastal village of Lupareve, in the neighboring Mykolaiv region. Though his village was never occupied by Russia, it was on the front line for months, when he spent long stretches hiding in basement bunkers.

Mr. Shuliuk, who helped clean up the fallout at the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the 1980s, said that the effects of the dam disaster would only worsen.

"I just saw cars, horses, cows were floating," he said. "It's a horror."

He wore old army fatigues, a hat celebrating the sinking of the Russian warship Moskva early in the war, and sneakers with the colors of the Ukrainian flag on the sides.

"This is a catastrophe not only for us but for the whole world," he said. "It's about flora, fauna, animals, fish, everything."

Echoing statements from Ukraine's leaders, he said he had no doubt that Moscow was responsible for the destruction of the dam, which is under Russian control. Russia has offered contradictory accounts about what happened at the dam, blaming Ukraine for the disaster without offering evidence.

Andriy, a Ukrainian soldier engaged in active service who gave only his first name, said he had been unable to reach his father, who is living under Russian occupation in Nova Kakhovka, a city adjacent to the dam.

"It's terrible," he said. "I can't even watch the videos. The House of Culture, the zoo, the river bank where the college graduates used to celebrate the last day of studies around this time of the year — all are under the water."

Evelina Riabenko and Anna Lukinova contributed reporting.

— Marc Santora

Hundreds of thousands of people in southern Ukraine do not have "normal access to drinking water" because of the destruction of the Kakhovka dam, President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Wednesday, as floodwaters from the surging Dnipro River inundated pipes that supply households.

The Kherson regional military administration urged residents to boil water and disinfect items that have come into contact with floodwaters, which could be contaminated by chemicals, and other toxic substances picked up from latrines, landfills and cemeteries.

People in that "critical zone" closest to the river need clean drinking water immediately and could face the threat of waterborne diseases, according to Olivia Headon, a representative for the International Organization for Migration, the biggest aid group operating in the country.

It remained unclear just how widespread or dangerous the shortage of clean drinking water was a day after the dam broke, given the huge police effort to evacuate people from flood zones and the help on hand from the government and aid groups. There were few immediate reports of people suffering from dehydration or from waterborne diseases like cholera and dysentery.

Mr. Zelensky said on the Telegram messaging app that Ukraine's emergency services could only help "on the territory controlled by Ukraine," adding that the authorities on the river's Moscow-controlled eastern bank had "completely failed" to organize an evacuation.

It was harder to get a picture of the situation in Russian-controlled areas, but Russian-installed officials declared a state of emergency and said that the Russian government and the pro-Putin political party, United Russia, were bringing in bottled water.

Concerns about drinking water compound the pressure on local government and aid groups, many of which have been working in Ukraine since 2014, the onset of war between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbas region.

The ability of the government and aid agencies to respond to Ukraine's needs had already been set back in the fall as Russia launched a campaign of strikes to cripple the country's power and water infrastructure.

The flooding has "added to the strain on the services that we provide and also the services that the local government provides," Ms. Headon said.

The local authorities have urged around 16,000 people on the Ukrainian-controlled west bank of the river in the Kherson region downstream to leave their homes because of the danger posed by flooding.

— Matthew Mpoke Bigg

The Belarusian president has pardoned a Russian woman who was arrested along with her boyfriend, an exiled blogger and antigovernment activist, after the dramatic forced landing of a flight in Minsk.

The president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, on Wednesday released the woman, Sofia Sapega, 25, only two weeks after he pardoned the blogger, Roman Protasevich.

Mr. Lukashenko sent MIG fighter jets to intercept the Ryanair flight to Lithuania from Greece in May 2021, drawing international outrage and helping turn the couple into symbols of the struggle for democracy.

At the time, Mr. Protasevich was the editor of Nexta, a channel on the Telegram messaging app. Nexta helped organize huge street protests that swept Belarus in 2020 when Mr. Lukashenko claimed he had won a sixth term in a landslide victory; critics said the election had been rigged.

A Belarusian court sentenced Ms. Sapega in May 2022 to six years in prison for "inciting social hatred" and the illegal collection of personal data. Investigators said she administered a Telegram channel called the Black Book of Belarus, which published the personal data of Belarusian security officials.

Ms. Sapega had been widely seen as receiving a harsher punishment than her former boyfriend. Though he was sentenced to eight years in May, he was pardoned weeks later. He was also released from a notoriously harsh detention center before trial to live under house arrest.

Anti-government activists in Belarus have accused Mr. Protasevich of turning on Ms. Sapega and his fellow dissidents. Last year, Mr. Protasevich said in an online post that Ms. Sapega was guilty of the charges against her and had not been convicted simply for being his girlfriend.

A sentence of six years in jail was "far from the most terrible sentence possible," he wrote.

He also shared a photograph in which he said he had fallen in love with and married a local woman.

It remains unclear whether he was under duress when he wrote those posts: Family and friends noted that in his first public appearances after his arrest, he showed clear signs of being beaten.

The pardons of Mr. Protasevich and Ms. Sapega are rare for Mr. Lukashenko, a leader who has not been known to show mercy to his political opponents.

According to Viasna, a dissident group that monitors repression in Belarus, Belarus has 1,492 political prisoners. The country has a population of 9.4 million.

Ms. Sapega was transferred into Russian custody on Wednesday to a delegation from the far eastern Primorsky region, according to a post on Telegram by Oleg Kozhemyako, its governor.

Her lawyer, Anton Gashinsky, said she was flying to Russia to meet with her father and would then announce her future plans.

"The news of her pardon was quick, unexpected," Mr. Gashinsky said.

Milana Mazaeva contributed reporting.

— Valerie Hopkins

Ukraine's Counteroffensive: Ukrainian Floods: Cross-Border Skirmishes: