KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s military has begun a counteroffensive that has altered the central dynamic of the fighting: the question is no longer how far Russian forces have advanced, but whether the Ukrainians are now pushing them back.
Ukraine has blown up parked Russian helicopters in the south, and on Thursday claimed to have destroyed a naval ship in the Sea of Azov. Its forces struck a Russian resupply convoy in the Northeast. Western and Ukrainian officials also have claimed progress in fierce fighting around the capital, Kyiv.
The asserted gains in territory are hard to quantify, or verify. In at least one crucial battle in a suburb of Kyiv, where Russian troops had made their closest approach to the capital, brutal street fighting still raged on Thursday and it was not clear that Ukraine had regained any ground.
But even this muddied picture of Ukrainian progress is helpful for the country’s messaging to its citizens, and to the world — that it is taking the fight to a foe with superior numbers and weaponry, and not just hunkering down to play defense.
In the counteroffensive around Kyiv, the Ukrainian military ordered lower-level commanders to devise strategies for striking back in ways appropriate to their local areas. In many cases, this involved sending small units of infantry on reconnaissance missions to find and engage Russian forces that had fanned out into villages near Kyiv, a soldier on one such mission said over the weekend.
By Thursday, the intensive fighting had set so many fires in towns around Kyiv that the city was shrouded in an eerie, white haze of smoke. But signs of actual, on the ground progress were elusive. Ukrainian forces have been unable to demonstrate they control villages or towns previously held by the Russian army.
“They are fighting day and night and everything is burning,” said Olha, 33, a saleswoman who escaped from Irpin Wednesday evening, and who was not comfortable providing her full name. She was interviewed at an aid station for displaced civilians where a continuous, cacophonous rumble of explosions could be heard from the fighting nearby.
Earlier on Wednesday, Kyiv’s mayor, Vitaly Klitschko, told a news conference that Ukrainian forces had in fact pushed back Russian troops and that “almost the whole of Irpin is in Ukrainian hands.” Other Ukrainian and Western officials have also offered more optimistic accounts than could be verified from witnesses.
The deputy police chief of Irpin, Oleksandr Bogai, said Russian soldiers were still in the town, occupying several districts and fighting Ukrainian forces. That is essentially the same situation that has persisted for nearly the entire month of the war. “There are huge explosions and a lot of smoke,” he said by telephone. “Civilians are holed up in basements. I don’t know exactly what is happening.”
In the fighting around Kyiv, civilians evacuating from the combat zone painted a picture, not so much of liberated towns but of chaotic, lethal violence.
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Vladimir, 66, a retired furniture factory worker who declined to offer his last name, walked out of Irpin Thursday morning after his home burned down overnight.
“Nobody is putting out the fires,” he said. “My neighbor’s home burned and I saw sparks on my roof and then my house started to burn.”
Lacking water to fight the fire, he could only watch. “We should never surrender,” he said. “We will never live under the Russians again.”