‘The intensity is increasing’: Ukraine says first steps in counteroffensive have begun

<span>Photograph: Efrem Lukatsky/AP</span>
Photograph: Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Preliminary operations have already begun to pave the way for a counteroffensive against Russian occupying forces, a Ukrainian presidential adviser has said.

“It’s a complicated process, which is not a matter of one day or a certain date or a certain hour,” Mykhailo Podolyak said in an interview with the Guardian. “It’s an ongoing process of de-occupation, and certain processes are already happening, like destroying supply lines or blowing up depots behind the lines.

“The intensity is increasing, but it will take quite a long period of time,” he added, predicting that as the counteroffensive gathered momentum, there would be more incursions into Russia by Russian rebel groups, such as the raid in Belgorod region earlier this week.

On Saturday the commander of Ukraine’s armed forces, Gen Valeriy Zaluzhny, raised expectations that a major operation could be imminent by declaring on social media: “The time has come to take back what’s ours.”

Ukrainian troops attach a bomb to a drone in the suburbs of Donetsk.
Ukrainian troops attach a bomb to a drone in the suburbs of Donetsk. Photograph: Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Zaluzhny’s declaration on the Telegram messaging app was accompanied by a cinematic video showing heavily armed Ukrainian soldiers preparing for battle to a soundtrack of ominous music and a narrator reciting a prayer calling for strength to “annihilate” Ukraine’s enemies.

The secretary of the national security and defence council, Oleksiy Danilov, told the BBC the much-anticipated counteroffensive could come “tomorrow, the day after tomorrow or in a week”.

Danilov said Kyiv had “no right to make a mistake” on the decision because it was a historic opportunity that “we cannot lose”.

A long spell of dry weather has driven anticipation of the counteroffensive, as has the incursion by Ukrainian-backed Russian rebel groups into Belgorod, possibly intended to draw troops and equipment away from the frontline in Ukraine.

Podolyak denied the Russian groups – the Russian Volunteer Corps and the Freedom of Russia Legion – which include far-right extremists in their ranks, were acting on Kyiv’s orders. He said their contracts as part of Ukraine’s foreign legion had ended and they therefore had the status of “citizens of the Russian Federation temporarily on the territory of Ukraine”.

But he said Kyiv had not acted to stop the incursion as “we deeply sympathise with whatever protest movements are in Russia”.

“As an authoritarian regime exists in Russia, how can we prevent its own citizens from doing something about it?” he asked.

A Ukrainian officer prepares to fire in a German self-propelled Panzerhaubitze 2000 artillery unit.
A Ukrainian officer prepares to fire in a German self-propelled Panzerhaubitze 2000 artillery unit. Photograph: Efrem Lukatsky/AP

“The further Ukraine goes towards liberating its territory, the more such incidents we see within Russian Federation territory,” Podolyak predicted. “It’s an objective consequence of high-intensity war that will demonstrate that Russia cannot carry out the military action in Ukraine, and protect its own borders.

“Since Russia has already lost its conventional war, the consequences of this loss will gradually move into Russian territory, and the federal government will eventually lose control over its territory.”

The prayer that can be heard on the video posted by Zaluzhny, calls for divine blessing on Ukrainian vengeance.

“I go to annihilate the enemies of the motherland, the murderers of my brothers, the rapists of my sisters,” it says as the video shows Ukrainian soldiers standing to attention in battle gear, climbing on to Leopard tanks, and waiting with guns at the ready in a forest.

“Let my hand be firm to kill the enemies. Let my eye be clear to kill the enemies. Let my weapon be trustworthy to kill the enemies. Let my will be steel to kill the enemies.”

“God, our heavenly father,” the prayer concludes, “bless our decisive offensive, our sacred revenge, our holy victory.”