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Russian reports that the Ukrainian counteroffensive has begun are being used to distract from Russian losses in Bakhmut, the Ukrainian deputy defence minister has said.

The comments from deputy defence minister Hanna Maliar come after Moscow said it had thwarted a major Ukrainian assault in the south of Ukraine‘s Donetsk region.

Ukraine war latest: Ukrainian forces ‘probing’ Russia’s defences for weaknesses

Posting on the Telegram messaging app, Ms Maliar said that Ukrainian forces were “shifting to offensive actions” in some areas along the frontline but dismissed suggestions that this was part of a major operation.

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2:31

Russia ‘thwarts’ Ukraine offensive

“Why are the Russians actively releasing information about a counteroffensive? Because they need to divert attention from the defeat in the Bakhmut direction,” she wrote.

Earlier on Monday, the Russian defence ministry claimed that forces had pushed back a “large scale” assault at five points in the Donetsk region.

The region was illegally annexed by Russia last year but is only partially controlled by Moscow.

Ukraine has been probing, but the counteroffensive hasn’t properly begun

John Sparks

International correspondent

@sparkomat

We’ve been waiting for months for a Spring offensive that now seems to be shifting to the summer.

We expect a major military engagement from the Ukrainians to recapture territory currently occupied by the Russians and we’ve all got a stake in it.

The West has helped to build up Ukraine’s military arsenal, it’s helped with training and intelligence, and so anticipation here and everywhere else is fever pitch.

It seems that level of anticipation is also being felt in Russia where today the defence ministry claims the beginning of the counteroffensive.

However, whether we’ve seen the beginning of the counteroffensive is subject to much speculation and debate.

Experts we’ve spoken to have pointed to a range of military engagements, right along the 1,000km long frontier, suggesting that at this point in time the Ukrainians are probing.

They’re looking for weaknesses in Russian defences, but haven’t begun the counteroffensive properly.

Proof of that may be found in the fact that we haven’t seen any proof of any new Western armaments being used in combat – for example the Challenger tank, nor is there proof of a major thrust by the Ukrainians on the frontline.

What we do know is that the Russians are well dug in, they’ve prepared multiple defensive lines, with the deployment of land mines and anti-tank traps.

It will be a major challenge for the Ukrainians to make the sort of advances that they were able to accomplish in their last counteroffensive.

The pressure is on Ukraine, expectations have risen along with the help that they’ve received and they will need to make significant and substantial progress to avoid having to open up talks with Putin.

Defence ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov claimed 250 Ukrainian personnel were killed, and 16 Ukrainian tanks, three infantry fighting vehicles and 21 armoured combat vehicles were destroyed.

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Drone footage also allegedly showed the destruction of Ukrainian equipment.

The head of Russia’s private military, the Wagner Group, also claimed that Ukrainian forces have retaken part of a settlement north of Bakhmut – two weeks after the group spearheaded the successful assault on the eastern city, after the longest battle of the war.

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4:01

Why hasn’t the spring offensive started yet?

Calling it a “disgrace”, Yevgeny Prigozhin said Kyiv’s forces had retaken the area of Berkhivka.

He urged leaders within Russia’s military, including defence minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov, to come to the frontline.

“Come on, you can do it!” He wrote on Telegram. “And if you can’t, you’ll die heroes.”

Ukraine’s Ms Maliar said the area around Bakhmut remained the “epicentre” of fighting and that the Ukrainian military was “moving along a fairly wide front”.

Meanwhile on Monday, UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the country’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba, during his second visit to Kyiv.

The pair discussed how the UK can continue to best support Ukraine, from the battlefield to banking guarantees, according to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

The visit comes amid preparations for the Ukraine recovery conference in London later in June, which will focus on boosting the nation’s economy.

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