Ukraine has been publicly cautious in counting gains in a counteroffensive it launched this month to reclaim territory occupied by Russian forces, and on Friday its president and a U.S. general acknowledged that progress is measured in blood.
The top U.S. military officer, Army General Mark Milley, told an audience at the National Press Club in Washington that the counteroffensive was “advancing steadily, deliberately working its way through very difficult minefields … 500 meters a day, 1,000 meters a day, 2,000 meters a day, that kind of thing.”
He said he was unsurprised progress was slower than some people and computers might have predicted.
“War on paper and real war are different. In real war, real people die. Real people are on those front lines and real people are in those vehicles. Real bodies are being shredded by high explosives.”
He added, “What I had said was this is going to take six, eight, 10 weeks, it’s going to be very difficult. It’s going to be very long, and it’s going to be very, very bloody. And no one should have any illusions about any of that.”
Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the counteroffensive was “slower than desired”, without getting too specific. Ukraine says it has recaptured a cluster of villages in operations that liberated 130 square km (50 square miles) in the south, but this is a small percentage of the total territory held by Russia.
On Friday, Zelenskiy said his forces advanced “in all directions of our active operations,” while Hanna Maliar, deputy defense minister, said the military assessed progress as “going according to plan,” and that the counteroffensive should be evaluated by “a lot of different military tasks.”
Reuters was unable to verify the situation on the battlefield. Russia, which began its full-scale invasion of its neighbor in February 2022 has not acknowledged the Ukrainian gains and has said Ukraine’s forces are suffering heavy casualties.
Zelenskiy was quoted as saying Ukraine wanted to show results before a July 11 NATO gathering in Lithuania, at which Kyiv is hoping for an invitation to begin the process of joining the U.S.-led military alliance – but not at any cost.
“Before the summit we have to show results,” Spanish national broadcaster RTVE quoted him as telling Spanish media in Kyiv, based on a translation of his remarks. “But every kilometer costs lives.”
Zelenskiy acknowledged plans for the counteroffensive had slowed in recent months. “We stopped because we could not advance,” he said. “Advancing meant losing people and we had no artillery.”
RTVE of Spain quoted him as saying Ukraine was “very cautious in this regard” and that he would choose to take longer if it meant losing fewer people. “Between time and human beings, people are the most important,” RTVE quoted him as saying.
Zelenskiy was speaking on a day when he ordered top military commanders to strengthen the northern military sector following the arrival of Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin in Belarus, under a deal negotiated by President Alexander Lukashenko that ended his mercenaries’ mutiny in Russia.
Prigozhin’s Wagner Group could set up a new base at a vacant military base near the town of Asipovichi, about 90 km (50 miles) from the Belarusian capital, Minsk, Russian media reported.
After pushing Russian forces out of northern regions last year, Ukraine took steps to tighten the defense of its border with Belarus, a close ally of Russia.
Zelenskiy said the situation in other frontline areas, supplies of artillery and shells, and advances by Ukrainian troops against Russian forces were discussed at a meeting with military commanders on Friday.
“Ukraine is fighting for their life,” Milley said in Washington. “We are giving them as much help as humanly possible. But at the end of the day, Ukrainian soldiers are assaulting through minefields and into trenches” against Russia’s much larger army.