White House spokesman John Kirby also said reports quoting anonymous US officials criticising Ukrainian effort were ‘not helpful’
Guardian staff and agencies
2 September 2023
Ukraine has made “notable progress” in its southern offensive over the past 72 hours, a top US security official has said, as Kyiv said its troops had broken through Russia’s first line of defences in several places.
In Washington, White House national security council spokesman John Kirby said the US had “noted over the last 72 hours or so some notable progress by Ukrainian armed forces in that southern line of advance coming out of the Zaporizhzhia area”. “They have achieved some success against that second line of Russian defences,” Kirby said, adding it was up to Ukraine how to capitalise on that success. He also called criticism of the Ukrainian effort by anonymous US officials in recent media reports “not helpful”.
In recent days, western battlefield analyses have shown Ukrainian forces penetrating Russian lines for several kilometres between Robotyne, a village recaptured by Ukraine this week, and Verbove in the Zaporizhzhia region.
Kyiv’s aim is to advance directly south to the Sea of Azov, cutting off Russian land access to occupied Crimea.
But Russian forces have established long and deep barriers across the terrain, including tank traps, minefields and other defences, to slow Ukraine’s advance. “We’ve all seen the criticism by anonymous officials out there, which frankly is not helpful” to Ukraine’s battlefield effort, Kirby said. “Any objective observer of this counteroffensive, you can’t deny that they have made progress now,” he added.
Kyiv had bristled this week over news reports quoting unidentified US officials complaining about its slow progress. The reports included one by the New York Times last week which quoted western officials as saying that the offensive had made limited progress because Ukraine had too many troops in the wrong places.
At a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Spain on Thursday, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, had hit out at critics of Kyiv’s tactics, saying they were spitting in the faces of Ukrainian soldiers and should “shut up”. He did not specify to which critics he was referring.
Some Ukrainian officials fear the west’s staunch support could begin to falter as colder and wetter weather further hampers progress on the battlefield later this year.
On Friday the deputy defence minister, Hanna Maliar, also said Kyiv’s troops were advancing in the Zaporizhzhia region. “There is an offensive in several directions and in certain areas. And in
some places, in certain areas, this first line was broken through,” Maliar told Ukrainian television.
She added, however, that Kyiv’s troops – who have been battling to advance through heavily mined areas for almost three months – had now run into major defensive Russian fortifications. “Our armed forces have to overcome a lot of obstacles in order to move forward,” she said.
Heavy fighting swept the villages around Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, captured in May by Russian forces after months of battles, but it was difficult to determine whether any advances had been made, Maliar said. “In the course of a single day, positions between the two sides can change several times.”
The general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces said in its evening report on Facebook that Russian forces had made no headway in attempts to advance in five different sectors of the front – from Kupiansk in the north-east to different parts of the Donetsk region.
Ukraine’s counteroffensive has not yet recaptured any major settlements, though it has retaken more than a dozen small villages. Last week it captured the village of Robotyne, beyond which lies Russian-occupied high ground, huge anti-tank ditches and lines of concrete fortifications visible from space.
Russia already calls the Ukrainian push a failure. Kyiv says it has been advancing slowly on purpose to minimise losses, and that its task is more difficult because it lacks the air power its western allies take for granted.