“Ukrainian forces are moving forward. Despite everything, and no matter what anyone says, we are advancing, and that is the most important thing. We are on the move,” Zelenskyy wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
Zelenskyy’s comments come amid U.S. concerns about the slow pace of the operation and Western reports questioning Ukrainian strategy in the three-month counteroffensive.
Ukrainian forces have retaken about a dozen villages but no major settlements. Their advances are being impeded by myriad Russian minefields and subsequent defensive lines.
John Kirby, National Security Council spokesman, told reporters Friday that Ukraine made “notable progress” in the southern Zaporizhzhia region, though he cautioned it “is not beyond the realm of the possible that Russia will react” to Ukraine’s push.
In its daily battlefield update, the Ukrainian military reported no new breakthroughs but said its troops broke through Russia’s outer defense perimeter and continued to advance toward Melitopol, a major Russian-occupied urban center in the Zaporizhzhia region.
Ukraine’s military reported 45 combat clashes on the front lines since midday Friday and said fighting raged in the east where Ukrainian troops had repelled multiple Russian attacks.
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar acknowledged Friday that Kyiv’s troops, who have been trudging through heavily mined areas for almost three months, had now run into major defensive Russian fortifications.
“Where we have already moved to the next line … the enemy is much more fortified there and, in addition to the mining, we also see concrete fortifications, for example, under the main commanding heights, and our armed forces have to overcome a lot of obstacles in order to move forward,” she said.
Kirby noted that Ukrainians are aware there are tough battles ahead and added that detractors of the Ukrainian counteroffensive are not “helpful to the overarching effort to make sure that Ukraine can succeed, and they are.”
There are fears the West’s support could begin to fade as colder and wetter weather sets in, slowing the pace on the battlefield later in the year. The West has poured billions of dollars to support the counteroffensive and Kyiv says it needs more.
Kirby also said he could not confirm reports Friday that Russia’s nuclear-capable Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missiles had been put on combat duty.
The Sarmat reportedly can carry up to 15 nuclear warheads. Known to NATO military allies by the codename “Satan,” the missile reportedly has a short initial launch phase, which gives little time for surveillance systems to track its takeoff.
Weighing more than 200 tons, the Sarmat has a range of about 18,000 kilometers and was developed to replace Russia’s older generation of intercontinental ballistic missile that dates to the 1980s.
Russia says it thwarts attack
Russia said early Saturday it thwarted a naval drone attack on a bridge that links the Russian mainland with the Crimean Peninsula.
In messages posted to Telegram, the Russian Defense Ministry said three semisubmersible unmanned boats, “sent by the Kyiv regime to carry out a terrorist attack on the Crimean bridge” were destroyed in the Black Sea — one late Friday and two early Saturday.
The bridge was built after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Completed in 2018, the bridge has been targeted throughout Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including an attack in July that caused major damage to the bridge and killed two people.
Ukraine claimed responsibility for the July strike but so far has not commented on Russia’s claim it prevented another attack.
Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts
Ukrainian state security officials named Ukrainian tycoon Ihor Kolomoisky as a suspect in a fraud and money laundering case, the SBU security service said Saturday.
Zelenskyy has made it a priority to crush graft and illicit financial dealings among officials and well-connected businessmen. Kolomoisky, one of Ukraine’s richest men, is the most prominent figure to have become a target. Zelenskyy is moving to equate wartime corruption with treason.
U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan met Friday with a delegation of the heads of Ukrainian anti-corruption institutions, including the director of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, Semen Kryvonos, Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor Oleksandr Klymenko, and Vira Mykhailenko, the chief justice of the High Anti-Corruption Court, according to the White House.
The officials discussed the progress Ukraine has made in combatting graft and in safeguarding the autonomy of crucial government institutions.
Sullivan underscored the importance of independent, impartial law enforcement and judicial institutions to any democratic society. He also reiterated Washington’s steadfast support for anti-corruption reforms in Ukraine and “for Ukraine’s brave defense of its democracy against Russian aggression.”
Efforts to revive grain deal
Two cargo vessels have sailed from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports despite fears of Russian attacks, maritime officials said Saturday.
Ukraine’s infrastructure minister says the Anna-Theresa, a Liberian-flagged bulk carrier carrying 56,000 metric tons of pig iron, left the Ukrainian port of Yuzhny on Friday. A second vessel, the Ocean Courtesy, left the same port with 172,000 metric tons of iron ore concentrate.
The minister said the vessels sailed through a temporary corridor for civilian ships from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports to the Bosporus. The ships are using the interim corridor established by Ukraine’s government after Russia quit the Black Sea Grain Initiative, a wartime agreement aimed at ensuring safe grain exports from Ukraine.
On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to hold talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. According to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, the talks are part of an effort to revive the U.N.-brokered Black Sea grain deal.
Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan met with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow on Friday to discuss grain exports ahead of the Erdogan-Putin meeting.
For nearly a year, the initiative helped facilitate the export of nearly 33 million metric tons of grain and other foodstuffs from Ukraine via the Black Sea, helping to bring down global food prices, which spiked after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia was also receiving help in facilitating its own grain and fertilizer exports.
VOA’s United Nations Correspondent Margaret Besheer contributed to this story. Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.