Russia has suffered yet another battlefield humiliation after Ukraine successfully thwarted its attempt to cross a river in Donbas, destroying dozens of vehicles and inflicting heavy casualties.
Satellite images lay bare the scale of the failure with the remains of two pontoon bridges drifting in the Donets River at Bilohorivka, west of the city of Lysychansk, surrounded by the ruins of tanks and armoured vehicles.
It appears Russian commanders were attempting to surround Lysychansk – and its sister city of Severodonetsk – with the crossing, but saw their sneak-attack turn into a massacre when Ukraine correctly guessed their plans.
‘Maxim’, a Twitter user claiming to be a Ukrainian military engineer, says he identified the spot where Russia was most-likely to try crossing the river on May 7 and told his commanders to listen out for the sound of tugboat engines pushing a pontoon bridge into place as a sure sign that a crossing was imminent.
On the morning of May 8 Russia blanketed the river with smoke by burning nearby fields and throwing smoke grenades, he said, but commanders detected the sound of boat engines and called in artillery strikes which caused devastating losses.
It came as Ukraine’s generals said Russia’s offensive in the Donbass has largely stalled, with Putin’s troops forced on to the defensive north of Kharkiv as counter-attacks push the invaders back across their own border.
In a late-Wednesday update, Ukraine’s commander said there had been no major attacks around Izyum – where the bulk of its Donbas force is located – or in Mykolaiv or Kryvyi Rih, hundreds of miles to the south, where it has been forced to reinforce its units after taking casualties.
To the north of Kharkiv, commanders said ‘occupying forces moved to the defence in order to slow down the pace of the offensive of our troops’. It means the only section of frontline that remains active is around Severodonetsk – where the bridge ambush took place – Donetsk and Mariupol, where Ukrainian defenders are still holding out.
Russia attempted to bridge the Donets River to the west of the city of Lysychansk on May 8, apparently hoping to surround Ukrainian defenders dug in there – but were found out and massacred
Newly-released images of the ambush show dozens of destroyed Russian vehicle littering both banks of the river along with sections of pontoon bridge left floating in the water
The remains of at least three Russian tanks and another four armoured infantry vehicles are seen on one bank of the river, along with other pieces of wreckage poking out from under the water
A Ukrainian military engineer who took part in the operation claims he correctly predicted where the Russians would try to put their bridge, allowing artillery to bombard the area
Observers have so-far counted the wrecks of at least 58 Russian vehicles including tanks, armoured infantry carriers, trucks and even one tugboat that was blown up trying to position the bridge
Ukrainian forces are trying to hold the cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychans’k from Russian troops, which have almost managed to surround them. The river crossing attempt was designed to complete the encirclement, but was foiled
Speaking about the moment the Severodonetsk ambush took place, Maxim said: ‘Roughly 20 minutes after recon unit confirmed the Russian bridge was being mounted, heavy artillery engaged against Russian forces, and then aviation chipped in as well. I was still in the area, and I have never seen or heard such heavy combat in my life.
‘After one day of combat, 9th May morning the bridge was down. Some Russian forces – roughly 30 to 50 vehicles and infantry – were stuck on the Ukrainian side of the river with no way back. They tried to run away using the broken bridge. Then they tried to arrange a new bridge.
‘Aviation started heavy bombing of the area and it destroyed all the remains of Russians there, and the other bridge they tried to make. Rumors say it’s 1,500 Russian dead. Their strategic objective was to cross the river and then encircle Lysychansk. They miserably failed.’
Russian troop losses in the bombardment are almost impossible to estimate, but online observers have so-far counted 58 destroyed vehicles including at least seven tanks and dozens of armoured infantry carriers.
At least one tugboat appears to have been wiped out, along with two pontoon bridges left floating in the river with shell-holes visible in the top of them.
It is just the latest defeat for Putin’s forces, after a successful Ukrainian counter-attack pushed Russian troops away from the city of Kharkiv and back across the border. It means Ukrainian artillery can now threaten the town of Vovchansk, which contains a key highway and rail line supplying Russian forces in Donbas.
Ukrainian commanders said late Wednesday that Russia’s offensive has now halted around Izyum, Kherson and Melitopol as Putin’s men are forced onto the defensive after running out of momentum.
If confirmed, it means the only active section of the frontline is in the southern portion of the Donbas – between Severodonetsk and Avdiivka, where limited Russian attacks are taking place – and in Mariupol where Ukrainian troops are still holding out inside the Azovstal steel works.
Though the fight is far from over, a stalled Russian advance and Ukrainian counter-attacks are what preceded Russia’s retreat from Kyiv earlier in the war. A similar retreat from Donbas would spell disaster for Putin.
In its Thursday-morning update on the frontline, Britain’s Ministry of Defence said: ‘Russia’s prioritisation of operations in the Donbas has left elements deployed in Kharkiv vulnerable to the mobile, and highly motivated, Ukrainian counter-attacking force.
‘Despite Russia’s success in encircling Kharkiv in the initial stages of the conflict, it has reportedly withdrawn units from the region to reorganise and replenish its forces following heavy losses.
‘Once reconstituted, these forces will likely deploy to the eastern bank of the Donets River, forming a blocking force to protect the western flank of Russia’s main force concentration and main supply routes for operations in the vicinity of Izyum.
‘The withdrawal of Russian forces from Kharkiv is a tactic recognition of Russia’s inability to capture key Ukrainian cities where they expected limited resistance from the population.’
Ukraine announced it will hold its first war crimes trial over the Russian invasion, as Moscow accused Kyiv of shelling a Russian city in the war’s latest flashpoint.
Two sections of destroyed pontoon bridge with blast-holes in them are seen floating in the Donets River after a successful ambush by Ukrainian defenders led to heavy Russian casualties
A column of burned-out Russian vehicles sits alongside the remains of what once may have been barns or warehouses on the banks of the Donets River, after a Ukrainian barrage
At least one Russian tank and half a dozen armoured infantry transports are seen scattered through woodland near the Donets River, after a failed crossing led to heavy losses for Putin’s forces
Ukraine claims Russia used smoke from fires similar to this one to shroud the crossing, but the sound of tugboat engines pushing the pontoon bridges into place gave the game away and allowed artillery to strikes
The conflict has devastated cities and displaced millions, with fears also growing of its broader international impact as gas supplies to Europe were disrupted by a halt in Russian flows through Ukraine.
Kyiv has repeatedly accused Russian troops of committing atrocities since the invasion began on February 24, and Ukrainian authorities said Wednesday they would launch the first war crimes trial of the conflict.
The prosecutor general’s office said Vadim Shishimarin, a 21-year-old Russian service member, is accused of killing an unarmed 62-year-old civilian as he fled with four other soldiers in a stolen car.
‘The man died on the spot just a few dozen metres from his home,’ said a statement from prosecutor Iryna Venediktova’s office.
Shishimarin faces possible life imprisonment if found guilty.
Venediktova’s office has said it has received reports of more than 10,000 alleged war crimes, with 622 suspects identified.
The Russian invasion has sparked an exodus of nearly six million civilians, many of whom bear accounts of torture, sexual violence and indiscriminate destruction.
The UN Human Rights Council is due to hold a special session on Ukraine on Thursday.
Moscow has focused on eastern and southern Ukraine since it failed to take Kyiv in the first weeks of its campaign.
Ukraine’s forces were boosted by what Kyiv described as the recapture of four villages around the northeastern city of Kharkiv, close to the border with Russia.
In the Russian city of Belgorod, around 70 kilometres (43 miles) from Kharkiv, authorities said one person was killed and six injured by Ukrainian shelling.
Belgorod governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said it was ‘the most difficult situation’ facing the border region since Russia sent its troops into Ukraine 11 weeks ago.
Authorities in Russian regions bordering Ukraine have repeatedly accused Ukrainian forces of launching attacks.
In April, Gladkov said Ukrainian helicopters carried out a strike on a fuel storage facility in Belgorod.
In southern Ukraine, the pro-Kremlin authorities in the city of Kherson urged Putin to annex the region.
Kherson was the first major Ukrainian city to fall in the current conflict. It lies north of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.
Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of Kherson’s Moscow-installed administration, said there would be a ‘request to make Kherson region a full subject of the Russian Federation’.
The Kremlin replied it was up to the residents of Kherson to ‘determine their own fate’.
Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak said Kherson would be liberated and ‘the invaders may ask to join even Mars or Jupiter’.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has framed his nation’s resistance to the Russian invasion as a ‘war against tyranny’, but the fierce fightback has carried a heavy cost.
In a rare release of battle casualty figures, Ukraine’s National Guard said Wednesday that 561 of its members have been killed and nearly 1,700 wounded since the invasion began.
Neither the defence ministry in Kyiv nor its counterpart in Moscow has provided official death counts, but in mid-April, Zelensky said between 2,500 and 3,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed.
Artillery explodes inside the Azovstal steel works in Mariupol on Wednesday, as Russian forces continue their attempts to take the complex – where Ukrainian defenders are staging a last-stand
Smoke rises from the ruins of buildings inside the Azovstal steel works, which has now been under siege by Russia for more than two weeks but has still not been captured
A mostly-collapsed apartment building is seen in Mariupol – a city that has been near-totally destroyed in more than two months of fighting between Ukraine and Russia
A view of part of the city of Mariupol shows that almost every building bears the marks of heavy shelling and fires, after Russia’s bombardment near-totally destroyed it
Digging equipment brought in by Russia attempts a clean-up of badly damaged apartment buildings in Mariupol, as those who fled say almost nothing of the city remains
Ukraine’s effort to hold the Russian-speaking Donbas region in the east has also become increasingly desperate.
‘They come in waves,’ volunteer fighter Mykola said of the repeated Russian attempts to push past a strategic river near a rural settlement called Bilogorivka.
Much of the world has moved to isolate Putin as punishment for the invasion.
Russia ‘is today the most direct threat to the world order with the barbaric war against Ukraine,’ European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in Tokyo Thursday after meeting Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
Kishida, whose government joined the tough measures against Moscow, added: ‘Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not just a matter for Europe, but it shakes the core of the international order including Asia. This must not be tolerated.’
Russia has been hit with a wave of punishing economic sanctions that have started to take a toll on its foreign exchange reserves.
Zelensky said Wednesday that he had spoken with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz about boosting penalties on Moscow.
‘Step by step we are doing everything to make the aggressor feel the biggest pain from the aggression,’ the Ukrainian leader said.
But ramping up the embargoes has not been straightforward, with concern among some nations in Europe that rely on Russian gas.
Kyiv said Wednesday that Russia had halted gas supplies through a key transit hub in the east.
The stoppage caused supplies to plunge by 25 percent in Germany, which is dependent on Russia for its energy and has rejected an immediate full embargo on Russian gas.
The invasion of Ukraine has also prompted Sweden and Finland to consider NATO membership.
Finland was due to reveal its position on joining the bloc on Thursday.
A Ukrainian commander in Mariupol appealed directly to Elon Musk on Wednesday, asking the world’s richest man to intervene on behalf of those trapped by Russian forces in the southern port city.
The war has devastated Mariupol, where Ukrainians have sustained a pocket of resistance at a steel factory.
Iryna Yegorchenko, 43, learned Wednesday that her soldier son Artem had died protecting the Azovstal plant.
‘I suddenly felt relieved,’ she told AFP.
The 22-year-old was crushed during the collapse of a structure and ‘quickly went to God’, said Yegorchenko, who lives in Kyiv.
‘He decided to defend his homeland, his people… I have nothing to be ashamed of as a mother.’
Russian infantry fighting vehicles open fire with anti-tank missiles during an attack in Kharkiv, before a Ukrainian counter-attack which forced these units back across the border
Tetyana Pochivalova weeps outside her destroyed house in Vilhivka village, north of Kharkiv, which has recently been recaptured by Ukrainian forces counter-attacking in the region
Destroyed houses in Slatino village, north of Kharkiv, in areas which have been recently recaptured by Ukrainian forces
Destroyed houses are pictured in Vilhivka village which was recently recaptured by Ukrainian forces north of Kharkiv
Trashed furniture and other belongings lie outside a destroyed house north of Kharkiv, after it was recaptured by Ukraine
Ukrainian soldiers in front of a damaged Russian BMP on the outskirts of Kharkiv, after successful counter-attacks
Ukrainian soldiers gesture around their anti aircraft missile system near Sloviansk, eastern Ukraine