(CN) — Ukrainian forces on Thursday were on the offensive for a fourth day as fierce fighting was reported on several fronts, even in the vicinity of a war-damaged nuclear power plant where a team of international inspectors was assessing the facility's status.
On Monday, Ukraine launched a long-awaited counteroffensive in a bid to recapture Kherson, a strategic port city on the Black Sea that fell under Russian control in early March.
By Thursday, it appeared Kyiv was attempting to mount offensives elsewhere on the front lines, where the most intense fighting extends more than 500 miles from around Kharkiv near the border with Russia all the way to the Black Sea.
In a big development, a team of experts with the International Atomic Energy Agency reached the endangered Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station on Thursday and began inspections. Their trip to Zaporizhzhia was fraught with perils and delays as Ukrainian and Russian forces battled nearby.
On Thursday, Russia even claimed it repelled a river attack on the nuclear plant by dozens of Ukrainian troops sent by barge and boats across a reservoir on the Dnieper River where the nuclear site is located.
Ukraine denied any such attack and accused Russia of conducting “false flag” operations to make it seem like Ukraine was endangering the nuclear station. There were reports from Enerhodar, a city under Russian control next to the nuclear plant, of gunfire and explosions while videos showed Russian helicopters flying over the city apparently looking for Ukrainian militants.
For weeks, both sides have accused each other of shelling the Zaporizhzhia station and raising the risk of a disastrous radiation leak. Last week, the station temporarily lost power. Ukraine accuses Russia of using the facility as a military staging area. The United Nations is calling for the plant to be demilitarized.
By late Thursday, the IAEA had not provided any assessment of the situation at Zaporizhzhia, though that was expected in the coming days.
Rafael Grossi, the IAEA's chairman, led the mission to the facility and departed shortly after he did a tour of Zaporizhzhia. He said IAEA experts will remain at the site and that his agency was working to establish a “permanent presence.” The facility is being run by Ukrainian workers who are overseen by Russian nuclear experts and commanders.
The Zaporizhzhia station is perilously located on the front lines of Ukraine's military focus, which is in the south where it is trying to seize the city of Kherson. The success of Ukraine's offensive so far is unclear, though Western military experts and officials said they had made some advances.
Kyiv has ordered an information blackout over its operations and curtailed even Western media reports. This has made it even more difficult to assess Ukraine's battlefield successes near Kherson. Some 20,000 Ukrainian soldiers are reportedly involved in the southern offensive.
Still, Mikhail Podolyak, a top adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said Ukrainian forces were attacking the enemy around Kharkov and in the Donbas, where fierce fighting has raged for months.
Podolyak said the results of the offensives were not immediately noticeable but that Ukraine was deploying a “tactic of a thousand cuts.” He vowed that Ukraine will carry out attacks along the entire front line.
“The counteroffensive from the Ukrainian side is a slightly different type of war, this is a modern type of war,” he said, as reported by Strana, a Ukrainian news outlet. “Why are we doing this tactic of thousands of cuts against the Russian army? Because we want them to panic and move their reserves along the entire front line, over all the 1,300 kilometers (about 807 miles).”
Russian officials and sources, meanwhile, claim the offensive has been a failure and cost Ukraine heavy losses in soldiers and equipment. Russian sources have distributed videos showing destroyed Ukrainian tanks, dead soldiers and a line of screaming ambulances in nearby Odesa.
Western media have reported that the Pentagon helped “war game” the southern operation and that recent U.S. arms shipments were delivered specifically to aid Ukraine's offensive.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington military think tank, said Russian pronouncements about Ukraine's offensive failures and internal clashes inside Zelenskyy's government over war tactics should be discounted.
In recent weeks, Russian and Ukrainian reports have suggested Zelenskyy has clashed with his military brass because they are hesitant about launching attacks for fear that Ukraine's military has not been sufficiently beefed up. By contrast, Zelenskyy allegedly is pushing for immediate battlefield successes for political and propaganda gains, such as proving to the West his forces are winning.
“Military operations on the scale of this counteroffensive do not succeed or fail in a day or a week,” the think tank said in a report on Wednesday.
The report said Ukrainian officials are aware they do not have the mechanized forces “to conduct a blitzkrieg-like drive to destroy the Russian defenses in Kherson Oblast or anywhere.”
But after weeks of striking Russian communication lines, command centers and logistics systems, the think tank said Ukraine has gone on the offensive because of the “observed degradation of Russian capabilities.”
It said Ukraine can be expected to carry out a “shrewd and nuanced” strategy that relies on feints and “misdirections” due to its lack of “numerical advantages” in troops and weapons. It added that Ukraine will likely go slow in order to avoid causing large-scale destruction of cities it hopes to recapture and rebuild.
While Kyiv's military launches artillery and ground attacks, Ukrainian saboteurs and assassins are working behind enemy lines. There have been a number of reports of bombings that have wounded and killed authorities in Russian-held territories, including the alleged killing last week of a deputy chief of the traffic police in Berdyansk. Russia also accused Ukrainian agents of being behind the Aug. 22 car bombing in Moscow that killed Darya Dugina, a journalist and daughter of a prominent Russian ultra-nationalist intellectual and supporter of the war against Ukraine. Ukrainian militants are also blamed for attacks on infrastructure, including targets inside Russia.
While Ukraine is attacking, Russia too continued its assaults in the eastern region of Donetsk, where it has seized an additional 75 square miles in the past month, and elsewhere. There are indications Russia is preparing to mount its own large-scale offensives in the coming days or weeks as it moves more troops and equipment toward the front lines.
Increasingly, the war in Ukraine is seen as a proxy war between the United States and its NATO allies against Russia. The conflict between the West and Russia continues to intensify and expand too.
This week, the White House alleged Russia has begun receiving surveillance drones from Iran, something the Kremlin has denied. A pro-Russian leader in Ukraine alleged that Kyiv has received long-range missiles from the Pentagon. Until now, the U.S. has said it is supplying Ukraine only with medium-range rockets to prevent Kyiv from striking targets inside Russian territory.
On Thursday, the European Union made it harder for Russians to receive visas to travel inside the bloc and several EU members bordering Russia were given the go-ahead to ban Russian travelers.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.