HomeWorld NewsZelensky signals Ukraine’s counteroffensive is underway

Zelensky signals Ukraine’s counteroffensive is underway

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tacitly acknowledged for the first time Saturday that his forces had launched a highly anticipated counteroffensive against invading Russian troops, as fighting intensified in eastern and southern Ukraine.

The country’s military is engaged in counteroffensive and defensive operations, Zelensky said at a news conference Saturday, Ukrainian media reported. “At what stage [they are at] — I will not say in detail,” he added.

Ukrainian officials previously said they would refrain from formally announcing the start of the campaign. But on Thursday, four Ukrainian service members confirmed to The Washington Post that they had stepped up strikes in the southeast, signaling that the counteroffensive was underway.

Even Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday said that Ukrainian forces had started their offensive. Zelensky said on Saturday that he “wouldn’t trust” Putin, but added that Ukraine’s top generals are “now in a positive mood.”

The president made his remarks in Kyiv alongside Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who paid an unannounced visit to the Ukrainian capital, together with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who is of Ukrainian descent.

The trip, Trudeau’s second since Russia’s full-scale invasion began, was yet another gesture of NATO support for Ukraine. Canada, with its million-strong Ukrainian diaspora, has been one of Ukraine’s strongest backers against Russian aggression. The Canadian military started training Ukrainian units shortly after Moscow invaded Crimea in 2014.

Trudeau on Saturday announced around $375 million in additional military aid to Ukraine, also pledging to extend Canada’s military training for Ukrainian troops until 2026 and expand it to include teaching Ukrainian pilots to fly Western F-16 fighter jets, Canadian broadcaster CBC reported.

What to know about the breach of Ukraine’s Kakhovka dam

Also on Saturday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he would phone Putin to demand the withdrawal of all Russian troops from Ukraine — opening a new diplomatic pressure campaign.

“It’s not reasonable to force Ukraine to approve and accept the raid that Putin has perpetrated and that parts of Ukraine become Russian just like that,” Scholz said at the German Protestant Church Congress on Saturday, Germany’s DW news agency reported.

Scholz has spoken with Putin 10 times since the invasion in February 2022. During the chancellor’s last exchange with the Russian leader, in December, he failed to persuade Putin to end the war — but the pair agreed to extend the Black Sea grain deal that has allowed Ukraine to export foodstuffs to Europe and other countries.

But fresh Russian strikes on Ukrainian cities Saturday illustrated the unpredictable nature of the war and its deadly toll on civilians. A combined rocket and drone attack in the port city of Odessa killed three people and injured three dozen more, Natalia Humeniuk, a spokeswoman for Ukraine’s southern command, told Ukrainian media. And debris from an Iranian-supplied Shahid drone crashed into a residential building, causing a fire in which three people were killed and 26 injured.

Ukraine’s military also reported “heavy battles” in the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. Ukrainian forces advanced near Bakhmut, in Donetsk, by about three-quarters of a mile, or 1.2 kilometers, Col. Serhiy Cherevaty, spokesman for Ukraine’s military in the east, said.

Britain’s Defense Ministry said in an update Saturday that “significant” Ukrainian operations had taken place in the previous 48 hours, with Ukrainian forces having “likely made good progress and penetrated the first line of Russian defense” in some areas while moving “slower” in others.

Ukraine’s latest offensive push, its third major campaign thus far, is relying heavily on Western weapons and fighting vehicles together with specialized attack units trained in NATO tactics.

In a joint statement with Zelensky on Saturday, Trudeau said, “Canada supports Ukraine to become a NATO member as soon as conditions allow for it.”

NATO members are due to vote on whether Ukraine should be invited to join the alliance at a summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, in July. If they vote in favor, it will still likely take several years for Ukraine to become a member. Ukraine has been lobbying to join the alliance since September, when Zelensky announced that the country would apply for membership, saying it was the best way to secure peace in Europe.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said Ukraine will eventually be invited to join the alliance. But other members have sought to lower Kyiv’s expectations for the summit, wary that an immediate invitation might provoke a direct war between NATO and Russia.

In Ukraine, the government and its allies also were focused on emergency relief efforts in the Kherson region after the collapse of a major dam on Tuesday caused devastating flooding.

Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of sabotaging the dam and of attacking civilians fleeing the floods. Ukrainian authorities said Russian forces shelled rescue workers and flood victims on six occasions over the past four days. Four people died in the attacks, Ukrainian Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko said. One person also was confirmed dead in the flooding, he said.

Water continues to flow out of the Kakhovka reservoir on the Dnieper River, with the surge spreading across a wider area, according to a spokesperson for Ukraine’s state hydroelectric company, UkrHydroEnergo. More than 3,000 people have been evacuated in the Kherson and Mykolaiv regions on the Ukrainian-controlled side of the river, Zelensky said Saturday.

Trudeau, in Kyiv, promised around $7.5 million of humanitarian assistance for flood victims. Britain also announced roughly $20 million of aid Saturday for civilians affected by the breach and said it plans to send boats, water pumps and waders to Ukraine, according to a statement from the Foreign Office.

U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths said Friday that U.N. agencies were “trying to get the response moving as quickly as possible.”

In a statement, he outlined a three-phase plan to provide humanitarian relief to flood victims. Nearly 40 villages and towns in Ukrainian-controlled parts of Kherson have been “severely affected” by flooding, and some 700,000 people lack safe drinking water, according to the U.N.

Parker reported from Madrid. Amanda Coletta in Toronto contributed to this report.

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