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Russia reinforces positions in south in preparation for Ukrainian counteroffensive

A Russian T-90 main battle tank. (Vitaliy Ragulin/WikiCommons)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Russian troops have begun to reinforce their positions in key cities and regions in the south of Ukraine as they prepare for an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive, even as the Kremlin’s forces press their onslaught in the Donbas region in the east.

The British Defense Ministry said on July 17 that Russia was moving troops and equipment between Kherson, Mariupol, Melitopol, and Zaporizhzhya, where Russia occupies Europe’s largest nuclear plant.

“Given the pressures on Russian manpower, the reinforcement of the south whilst the fight for the Donbas continues indicates the seriousness with which Russian commanders view the threat,” the British statement said.

The comments come the same day that Britain’s top military commander, Admiral Tony Radakin, told the BBC in an interview that Russia had lost some 50,000 killed or wounded soldiers in its invasion and that nearly 1,700 tanks have been destroyed.

He cautioned, though, that any speculation the setbacks would lead to the quick downfall of Russian President Vladimir Putin was “wishful thinking.”

A Ukrainian military official, meanwhile, said Russia was preparing for the next stage of its offensive in Ukraine following orders from Moscow to step up military operations, with a main goal of fully capturing the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east, known as the Donbas, but with attacks occurring in the central, northeast, and south of Ukraine as well.

“It is not only missile strikes from the air and sea,” said Vadym Skibitskiy, a spokesman for Ukrainian military intelligence. “We can see shelling along the entire line of contact, along the entire front line. There is an active use of tactical aviation and attack helicopters.

“There is indeed a certain activation of the enemy along the entire front line…. Clearly preparations are now under way for the next stage of the offensive.”

Kyiv has said in recent days that its forces are themselves preparing for a massive counteroffensive to reclaim land previously lost, especially in the south.

Claims and counterclaims on both sides in the conflict are difficult to immediately verify.

On July 17, Russian missiles hit industrial and infrastructure facilities in and near the strategic southern city of Mykolayiv.

The mayor, Oleksandr Senkevych, said the missiles struck a key shipbuilding center in the estuary of the Southern Bug River. There was no immediate word on casualties.

The Ukrainian military’s General Staff said on July 17 that Ukrainian troops thwarted Russian attempts to advance toward Slovyansk, the key Ukrainian stronghold in the eastern region of Donetsk, and other attacks elsewhere in the region.

Moscow announced on July 16 that it would step up its military operations in Ukraine.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu gave “instructions to further intensify the actions of units in all operational areas, in order to exclude the possibility of the Kyiv regime launching massive rocket and artillery strikes on civilian infrastructure and residents of settlements in Donbas and other regions,” the Defense Ministry said.

Ukraine says at least 40 people have been killed in Russian shelling of urban areas in the last three days.

Russian missiles hit an industrial and infrastructure facility in the city of Mykolayiv in southern Ukraine, Mayor Oleksandr Senkevych said on July 17. There was no immediate information about casualties.

Also on July 17, relatives and local residents attended the funeral of 4-year-old Liza Dmytriyeva in the central Ukrainian city of Vinnytsya.

Liza, who had Down syndrome, was killed in a missile strike on central Vinnytsia on July 14 that killed 24 people, according to Ukrainian authorities.

More than 200 others were wounded, including Liza’s mother, who remains in an intensive-care unit in grave condition.

Three people were killed in a Russian strike in the northeastern town of Chuhuiv in the Kharkiv region, regional Governor Oleh Synyehubov said on July 16.

Speaking in his July 16 evening address, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy pledged that his country would “endure.”

Zelenskiy said Ukraine had “withstood Russia’s brutal blows” and managed to take back some of the territory it lost since the start of the war, and will eventually recapture more occupied land.

A Ukrainian official suggested that Crimea, which most of the world still recognizes as part of Ukraine but was annexed by Russia in 2014, could be a target for U.S.-made HIMARS missiles, recently recently received and deployed by Kyiv.

“If any other state, be it Ukraine or NATO countries, believes that Crimea is not Russian, then this is a systemic threat for us,” former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on July 17. Any outside attack on the region will prompt a “Judgment Day” response, he said.

On the diplomatic front, the European Union was set to discuss a tightening of sanctions against Russia on July 18.

Brussels is expected to hold initial sanctions discussions, but not make a same-day decision, a senior EU official was quoted as saying by AFP.