Putin claims Russia is heading off Ukraine's counteroffensive, but little evidence to show advance is failing

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday Ukrainian forces had begun their expected counteroffensive, but that every attempted advance had failed, at a heavy cost in casualties. In response, Kyiv has only said that the start of its main push will not be announced.

Russian president discloses plans to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus next month

A group of men in camouflage uniforms ride on top of a large metal vehicle.
Ukrainian service members ride a M113 armoured personnel carrier, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near the front line city of Bakhmut in Ukraine's Donetsk region on Friday, June 9. (Viacheslav Ratynskyi/Reuters)

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that Ukrainian forces had certainly begun their expected counteroffensive with intense fighting in Ukraine, but that every attempted advance had failed, at a heavy cost in casualties.

Russia reported heavy fighting along the front in southern Ukraine on Friday, where bloggers described the first sightings of German and U.S. armour, signaling Ukraine's long-anticipated counteroffensive was underway.

With virtually no independent reporting from the front lines and Kyiv saying little, it was impossible to assess whether Ukraine was penetrating Russian defences.

"We can state for sure that this offensive has begun," Putin said in Sochi. "Ukrainian troops did not achieve their goals in any sector."

Kyiv has declined to challenge Putin's narrative, saying merely that the start of the counteroffensive will not be announced.

Russia reports intense battles

The counteroffensive is ultimately expected to involve thousands of Ukrainian troops trained and equipped by the West.

Russia says it has repelled attacks since the start of the week, but according to Kyiv, Ukraine's main effort has yet to begin.

Moscow and pro-war Russian bloggers reported intense battles on Friday on the Zaporizhzhia front near the city of Orikhiv, around the mid-point of the "land bridge" linking Russia to the Crimea peninsula, seen as one of Ukraine's likeliest targets.

Tens of thousands of Russian troops have for months been digging in along a front line stretching around 1,000 km, bracing for an attack that's expected to try to cut Russia's so-called land bridge to the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014.

Two soldiers rest in a trench in Ukraine.
Ukrainian soldiers rest in a trench on the front line near Kreminna, Luhansk region, Ukraine, on Thursday. (Roman Chop/The Associated Press)

Counteroffensive and Western support

The Russian defence ministry said that Ukraine was continuing "attempts to conduct offensive operations in the southern Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia directions."

It said its troops had repelled two Ukrainian assaults south of Orikhiv and four near Velyka Novosilka further east, where it said Ukraine's attack force included two battalions of troops supported by tanks. 

Kyiv has said almost nothing about the southern front, where it is widely expected to attempt its main push toward the coast.

Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said only that battles for Velyka Novosilka were continuing and Russian troops were mounting "active defence" at Orikhiv.

In the east, Ukraine has reported gains of territory around Bakhmut, which Russian forces captured last month after nearly a year of the deadliest ground combat in Europe since the Second World War. Ukraine generally bars journalists from reaching its side of front lines during offensive operations.

The fate of the counteroffensive, supported by tens of billions of dollars in Western weapons, is likely to influence the shape of future Western diplomatic and military support for Ukraine.

WATCH | Fierce combat escalates in Ukraine's east and south: 

Fighting across Ukraine ramps up as talk of counteroffensive grows

4 months ago
Duration 1:58
Fierce combat is escalating in the east and south as Ukrainian forces move into more offensive positions. Ukraine hasn’t confirmed if its expected counteroffensive against Russian forces has officially begun, but officials admit the country will need more Western military aid to win the war.

Russia to deploy tactical nuclear weapons

Putin also said Russia will start deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus after special storage facilities are ready on July 7-8. It would be Moscow's first move of such bombs outside Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union.

More than 15 months into the war, Putin says the U.S. and Western allies are pumping arms into Ukraine as part of an expanding proxy war aimed at bringing Russia to its knees.

LISTEN | Impact of drone strikes in Moscow and what they mean for the war:

Putin announced in March that he wanted to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, an apparent warning to the U.S.-led NATO military alliance over its support for Ukraine.

Tactical nuclear weapons are intended to destroy enemy troops and weapons on the battlefield. They have a relatively short range and a much lower yield than long-range strategic nuclear missiles that can destroy cities.

Leading NATO countries say they will support Ukraine and help it defend itself for as long as it takes from what Kyiv casts as an imperial-style land grab by Russia that threatens the survival of the Ukrainian state.

A man in a white shirt walks beside a man in a suit.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, walk during a meeting at the Bocharov Ruchei residence in Sochi, Russia, on Friday. (Pavel Bednyakov/Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters)

Nuclear moves being closely watched

"Everything is going according to plan," Putin told Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko when discussing the planned nuclear deployment at the Russian leader's Black Sea summer retreat in Sochi.

"Preparation of the relevant facilities ends on July 7-8, and we will immediately begin activities related to the deployment of appropriate types of weapons on your territory," Putin said, according to a Kremlin transcript of his remarks.

Lukashenko said: "Thank you, Vladimir Vladimirovich."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says Ukraine will not rest until all Russian soldiers are ejected from his country, which he wants to join NATO as soon as possible.

Putin's nuclear move is being watched closely by both the U.S. and its NATO allies in Europe, and by China, which has repeatedly cautioned against the use of nuclear weapons in the conflict.

Putin, 70, casts the war as a battle for Russia's own survival in the face of what he says is an ever-expanding NATO. He has warned the West that Moscow will not back down.

Satellite images showing a dam surrounded by water followed by an image of the same dam ruptured with water rushing through the gap.
This image provided by Maxar Technologies, shows Ukraine's Kakhovka dam and station before and after its June 5 collapse, which caused the Dnipro river to flood a swathe of southern Ukraine. (Satellite image ©2023 Maxar Technologies)

Dam disaster causes destruction

The initial days of what is believed to be Ukraine's counteroffensive have been overshadowed by the destruction of the Kakhovka dam holding back the Dnipro River.

Thousands have been forced to evacuate homes flooded in the war zone, vast nature preserves have been wiped out and the destruction to irrigation systems is likely to cripple agriculture across much of southern Ukraine for decades. Kyiv said at least four people had died and 13 were missing.

Ukraine released a recording Friday of what it said was an intercepted phone call in which a Russian soldier confides to another man that a Russian sabotage group had blown the dam up. Moscow says Ukraine sabotaged it.

A satellite image showing an area with many houses followed by an image showing water covering the same area.
This image provided by Maxar Technologies, shows Oleshky, Ukraine, on June 7, after flooding caused by the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka more than 70 kilometres away. (Satellite image ©2023 Maxar Technologies)

Western countries say they are still gathering evidence, but they argued that Ukraine would have no reason to inflict such a devastating disaster on itself, especially right as its forces were shifting onto the attack. 

Experts have said the structure was in disrepair, which could also have led to its collapse.

Before-and-after images of the area downstream from the dam show the extent of the devastation. Before the dam broke, satellite photos from May and early June show green fields and farm roads dotted with trees. 

After, only metal roofs and treetops poke above murky water. Greenhouses and homes are almost entirely submerged.

Satellite images of a community with small houses spread out near grassy fields followed by an image of floodwater covering the same vast area.
A satellite view of Krynky, Ukraine, provided by Maxar Technologies, showing the the village before and after being flooded by the Dnipro river after a dam ruptured earlier in the week. (Satellite image ©2023 Maxar Technologies)

With files from The Associated Press