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Ukraine’s president gives strongest hint yet much anticipated counteroffensive has started

<i>STR/NurPhoto/Getty Images</i><br/>Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a joint press-conference with Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau
STR/NurPhoto/Getty Images
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a joint press-conference with Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau

By Andrew Carey, Yulia Kesaieva and Uliana Pavlova, CNN

Kyiv (CNN) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has given his clearest indication yet that Ukraine’s long-awaited push to liberate territory still held by Russia’s occupying forces is underway, saying “relevant counteroffensive defensive actions are taking place in Ukraine.”

Speaking in Kyiv Saturday, the Ukrainian leader was asked to respond to comments by his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, who said Friday, “It can be stated with absolute certainty that the [Ukrainian] offensive has begun.”

The Russian leader added that it had not met with any success.

Zelensky shrugged off Putin’s suggestions Ukraine’s armed forces were struggling and sought to apply some psychological pressure of his own.

“It is interesting that Putin was talking about our counteroffensive. It is important that Russia feels [the counteroffensive], feels that they do not have much time left,” he said.

On the battlefield, Russia’s Defense Ministry reported further Ukrainian offensive operations along the frontline to the south and east of Zaporizhzhia.

The Defense Ministry update, posted on its Telegram channel, said that troops from the Vostok brigade immediately to the southeast of the frontline town of Orikhiv, had repelled two attempted advances by Ukrainian tank units, one near the village of Novopokrovka.

In addition, it said two Ukrainian armored columns had been repelled near Novodanilovka and Mala Tamkachka. In the same area, Russian military bloggers said Russian troops in positions close to the road south of Orikhiv towards Tokmak were continuing to report extremely heavy Ukrainian artillery fire.

Further east along the frontline, to the southwest of Velyka Novosilka in Donetsk region, the Russian Defense Ministry said Ukrainian forces had made three further attempted advances, which it said had all been defeated.

Zelensky tight-lipped

CNN is unable to verify Russian defense ministry claims, and the picture is no clearer from the Ukrainian side.

Officials in Kyiv have disclosed little information since they stepped up activities along the front between Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk roughly six days ago.

Zelensky, in his comments Saturday at a press conference alongside Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, though referring to counteroffensive activities said, “I will not give any details about the stage it is at.”

After spending most of the winter embroiled in fighting around Bakhmut, as well as training its soldiers and waiting for the arrival of western military aid – like tanks and longer-range strike weapons like Storm Shadow missiles – the last few weeks have seen Ukraine clearly step up military activities.

These have included what are known as shaping operations – strikes on targets far behind front lines, like fuel depots and soldiers’ barracks – and more recently probing operations, where an army conducts what are sometimes called reconnaissance-in-force operations, which are designed to test the enemy’s weak spots as well as its combat readiness.

Despite this, and the comments by the Ukrainian leader Saturday, there is still no evidence that Ukraine has begun a major advance involving large numbers of forces.

This report has been updated to correct how President Putin described Ukraine’s offensive.

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