Explosions Hit Southern Ukraine as Both Sides Brace for Counteroffensive

Explosions rang out across the front line in Ukraine on Sunday as both sides sought to gain an advantage ahead of an expected Ukrainian campaign to retake territory captured by Russia, with the death of a two-year-old girl underscoring the 15-month war’s enduring toll on civilians.

Russian forces fired another barrage of cruise missiles and attack drones at targets across Ukraine overnight, according to Ukrainian officials, while blasts were reported in Russian-occupied Melitopol and Berdiansk — two cities in southern Ukraine that military analysts say could be targets of Kyiv’s widely anticipated counteroffensive.

The Russia-installed authorities in occupied Crimea, meanwhile, said they had intercepted nine Ukrainian drones overnight, according to the Russian state news agency Tass. The report could not be independently confirmed, but it was the latest in a string of reported attacks in occupied areas which military analysts say are likely a Ukrainian effort to weaken Russia’s defenses ahead of a concerted attempt by Kyiv’s forces to recapture territory.

After months of preparations, Ukrainian officials have said in recent days that Kyiv’s forces were ready to launch a counteroffensive. President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine took the unusual step in an overnight speech of thanking a dozen individual soldiers by name for their service to the country.

A departure from his usual practice of highlighting specific military units, the speech was an attempt to show “more personal words of gratitude to particular warriors,” Mr. Zelensky said. Moscow’s invasion last year has forged a close bond between Ukrainian civilians and their military.

Russia has been stepping up its missile strikes as Ukrainian forces prepare for the counteroffensive, firing deadly waves of aerial assaults on cities and towns across the country.

The body of a 2-year-old girl was pulled from the rubble of a house after a Russian strike in the Dnipropetrovsk region, the head of the regional military administration, Serhiy Lysak, said on Sunday morning. He said that 22 people — including five children — were wounded in the strike, which hit the village of Pidhorodne on Saturday evening.

The Ukrainian Air Force said Sunday that four of six cruise missiles fired by Russian forces overnight were shot down. It added that air defenses also intercepted three of five attack drones.

Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, has been a frequent target in the recent wave of aerial assaults. For weeks, Russian attacks have sent Kyiv’s residents running for shelters in the middle of the night, with explosions rocking the city as air defenses worked to intercept the missiles. At least three people have been killed by debris falling from the sky in the last week.

On Sunday, the head of Kyiv’s military administration, Serhiy Popko, said that some of the cruise missiles fired overnight were aimed at Kyiv but all were shot down before they reached their targets. City residents heard nothing, he wrote on the Telegram messaging app.

Recent attacks in Russian-occupied areas suggest that southern Ukraine could be a focus of the counteroffensive and both sides have built up their forces along the southern front line in apparent anticipation.

Residents reported five blasts in the northern suburbs of Melitopol late on Saturday, according to the city’s exiled Ukrainian mayor, Ivan Fedorov, who posted a grainy photograph on the Telegram messaging app of smoke rising behind buildings. The images could not be independently verified and there was no independent confirmation of an attack.

The exiled Ukrainian authorities of Berdiansk, a port city in Zaporizhzhia region, reported eight explosions on Saturday and urged residents to stay away from the sites. The Russia-installed authorities in the city attributed the blasts to air defenses intercepting a Ukrainian missile attack. As with other reports, it was not possible to confirm what happened independently.

Berdiansk and Melitopol are two strategically important cities that Russia has turned into military strongholds. If Ukrainian forces were to recapture either one, that would sever the strip of land that connects Russian-held territory in the east and south of Ukraine.

That coastal strip of land is around 60 miles deep and runs from Crimea to territory Russia illegally annexed in eastern Ukraine. While Ukraine has this year stepped up its attacks on Russian targets in the area, it has not yet made a sustained effort to breach Russian defenses along the front line in the south.

Some military experts as well as Ukrainian officials argue that it is a distraction to talk about the precise moment when the counteroffensive might begin and say it would be more valuable to talk about a gradual process by which Ukraine regains the initiative in the 15-month war.

Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at CNA, a research institute in Virginia, argued that, when it comes to timing, it is clear that the counteroffensive did not come in the spring, as some had expected and will effectively take place in the summer.

Mick Ryan, a military analyst and retired Australian general, wrote Sunday on Twitter that there is “no perfect time” for Ukraine to launch a counteroffensive.

“But there will be a time that is optimum for Ukrainian force preparations and where they are most able to exploit Russian weaknesses,” he said. “That time is close.”

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