Ukraine’s counteroffensive has started! Or maybe not! Panic among Russian war bloggers was quickly stemmed by the Defense Ministry. Here’s what’s really going on.
Here’s what the Russian war bloggers (and officials) are writing
In the evening on May 11, multiple Russian Telegram channels supporting the invasion began announcing that the counteroffensive everyone had been expecting from Ukraine for the past several months had finally begun.
The self-styled “war correspondent” Evgeny Poddubny wrote, for example, that the Ukrainian troops had “begun executing an operation” to surround the Russian forces deployed along the Bakhmut direction. Poddubny also reported that the Russian defense lines near Soledar had been ruptured by the Ukrainian forces. “Consider the adversary’s counteroffensive to have started,” he wrote.
Another propagandist, WarGonzo author Semyon Pegov, agreed with this appraisal, pointing out that the Ukrainian troops are also advancing along the Horlivka direction.
Poddubny also said that, just outside of Kharkiv, Ukrainian military convoys could be seen all day as they carried the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ military equipment “towards the border with the Belgorod region.” Yet another prominent war blogger, Alexander Kots, reported similar information.
As these and similar statements proliferated across the Russian Telegram’s “Z” segment, something like a panic began to spread among the commentators. This compelled the Russian Defense Ministry to announce that the “statements made by some Telegram channels about ‘ruptured’ defense on different segments of the contact line have nothing to do with reality.”
Shortly afterwards, the “war correspondents” abruptly changed the tone of their posts. Some of them called on the audience “not to succumb to panic.” Pegov equivocated that the Ukrainian “offensive” was an ongoing reality, writing that “the adversary is constantly on the lookout for our weak spots, trying to attack them.” Poddubny also started describing the situation as “localized skirmishes within a larger plan,” insisting that nothing about his earlier posts should have provoked a panic.
Yet on May 12, the Defense Ministry’s daily briefing acknowledged the Ukrainian forces’ attempted offensive by Bakhmut, which had been thwarted, the ministry claimed, by the Russian side.
So what’s really happening on the frontline?
The Ukrainian armed forces really are conducting the first large-scale counteroffensive in the recent months. For the moment, though, this counteroffensive is limited to the Bakhmut area. It started with several localized counterattacks just south of the city, in the face of Wagner Group’s offensive there.
The action developed as follows. First, on May 9–10, the AFU’s 3rd Detached Tank Brigade ejected the 72nd Mechanized Infantry Brigade of Russian “volunteers” from their bridgehead on the Siverskyi Donets–Donbas canal. In April, that “volunteer” formation had taken the place of Wagner Group units on this segment, freeing the mercenaries to join other Wagner fighters then storming Bakhmut.
What happened next was reported by the “war correspondent” Alexander Simonov, connected to Wagner Group founder Evgeny Prigozhin. The units of the 4th Brigade of the federal Internal Forces (once part of the “militia” formed in the self-proclaimed Luhansk “republic”) came under Ukrainian attack northwest of Bakhmut. This brigade had also arrived here in late April or possibly early May, to replace the Wagner formations battling to cut off the supply line connecting the defenders in Bakhmut with the Ukrainian “mainland.” Simonov suggested that these Ukrainian assaults signaled a plan to try surrounding the Wagner grouping in the area.
Judging by the direction of the recent Ukrainian attacks, they are aimed at unblocking the forces that are now battling on the western outskirts of Bakhmut, partially enveloped by the invasion forces. The Russian Defense Ministry has confirmed, indirectly, that the Ukrainian assaults have been successful: according to an official statement, the Russian troops have retreated “to the more advantageous positions by Berkhivske Reservoir,” which spells a retreat by 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles). As for Evgeny Prigozhin, he described this retreat as simply Russian units’ “flight” from their positions.
The Ukrainian command’s exact plan is still unclear. Some commentators suggest that the attacks by Bakhmut might be the beginning of a large-scale offensive. It’s plausible that the Ukrainian command might want to force the Russian side to concentrate additional reserves in the Bakhmut area, to drain them away from the other directions of Ukraine’s impending counteroffensive.
The other possibility is that Ukraine is merely trying to help the defenders who are still battling for Bakhmut, under immense pressure from the invasion forces.