The counteroffensive has started in Ukraine — or maybe not


Krynky, one of the flooded villages near the blowed Kakhovka dam in Kherson region, Ukraine, June 6, 2023. Screenshot from YouTube.

“It's time to take back what is ours,” read a message from the Ukrainian supreme commander's Telegram channel on May 27, accompanied by a video clip seemingly created to recruit new military personnel. 

It could be read as an announcement of the start of the long-anticipated counteroffensive from the Ukrainian forces, but no clear plan or information followed. No one is denying that a major counter-offensive will happen soon or is already happening. But when on June 4, Russian media claimed Ukrainian forces were launching a “large-scale offensive” in the south of Donetsk region, citing the Russian defense ministry and pro-war Telegram channels, the Ukrainian Armed Forces Center for Strategic Communications (StratCom) posted a warning about “informational-psychological operations” by Russia. 

That warning was clearly in response to Russian reports about the Ukrainian assaults in the southeast, which were full of claims about Russian military successes — a common tactic by Russian state propaganda. Ukraine's StratCom insisted that the information about the Ukrainian military movements — and losses — was bogus, designed to demoralize Ukrainian society. It also added that Russia was hoping to spread misinformation about the counteroffensive “even if there is no counteroffensive.” 

Typically, Ukrainian political and military leadership ignores the outlandish Russian propaganda claims; however, given that they issued a response to this attack, many in Ukraine have concluded that the counteroffensive has indeed started.

Jokes, irritation, and anxiety

The Ukrainian military and political command have reasons to keep their plans secret. In autumn, this secrecy played a role in the blitz liberation of the Kharkiv region in the northeast while Ukrainian civilians and even the country's foreign allies expected fierce fights for Kherson in the south: the city was liberated later that year in part because of this secret operation. 

But this time, there may also be another reason. 

Russia still has much more personnel and weapons than Ukraine, and after a year and a half on the frontlines, Ukrainian soldiers are exhausted. Some write about this exhaustion publicly on social media, irritated by civilians who sometimes seem to blithely discuss the counteroffensive as if they are watching a football championship. 

The battle for Bakhmut continues despite the Russian claims that the town was taken, with Ukrainian forces now reportedly encircling the Russian units there. Every day obituaries or pictures from funerals flood Ukrainian social media feeds. Numerous military professionals who are either heavily wounded or captured, and about 7,000 are officially missing, while the real number may be even higher. 

In this context, the Ukrainian military command is reportedly introducing more and more restrictions for independent coverage from the frontlines.

In the spring, widespread tiredness, irritation, and anxiety amid the lack of official information led to a wave of memes that joked about a new Ukrainian counterattack starting not at the announced time and place but unexpectedly. “The counteroffensive will start suddenly,” Ukrainian social media users posted using the word “znenatska” for “suddenly,” which sounds like a name of a city or town, for example, Donetsk, or Lutsk, the real cities in Ukraine: creating the play on words, Z Nenatska – “from Nenatsk.”


The picture reads: “Counteroffensive: The Plan,” “Nenatsk.” From social media.

Others suggested that the counteroffensive will occur in Vprostets. “Navprostets” means “directly” in Ukrainian, and “na Vprostets” translates as “to Vprostets,” suggesting Vprostets is the name of a town, though just as in the cause of Nenatsk, there is no place with such a name. They also suggested the counteroffensive would occur “through Dupa,” or Ass, meaning ass-backward, “like everything in the army is done.”


The picture reads: “The Counteroffensive Plan,” “Nenatsk,” “Dupa,” “Vprostets,” “I am authoritarazing: The Most Supreme Boss,” “Signature here and signature here” — the latest rewokes decade-old meme with one of charismatic Ukrainian mayors. From social media.

The memes dissipated just as znenatska as they appeared, giving way to grief, irritation, and anxiety.

Unannounced attacks

The deficit of information pushed those hungry for frontline news straight to the Telegram channels, which StratCom had warned about. The latest posts by Alexandr Khodakovsky, one of the few remaining relatively trustworthy news sources from Donetsk, where he has been a pro-Russian military leader since 2014, got 1–2.4 million views, even though the account only has about 620,000 subscribers. Since June 4, Khodakovsky has posted about the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the southeast of the Donetsk region, where the troops under his command are positioned. 

One grave and rather overlooked side of this war is that Khodakovsky, a Donetsk native, commands mostly local Ukrainians who either volunteered or were forcefully mobilized for the Russian forces in the Russian-occupied part of the region, meaning that Ukrainians have likely been pitted against Ukrainians these days.

Some saw another sign of the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the raid on the Russian Belgorod region bordering Ukraine in the north and east by Russian fighters from the International Legion fighting in Ukraine — it was claimed that their purpose was to distract Russian forces. But in the occupied territories in the east and south of Ukraine, except Bakhmut, the Russian troops are sitting in fortified positions prepared for defense instead of attacking. 

On June 5, they blew the dam at the Kakhovka Water Power Plant presumably to prevent Ukrainian forces from using it as a bridge for crossing the large Dnipro River to liberate the rest of the Kherson region and move further to Crimea. Previously, media reported newly emerged lines of trenches in the north of the peninsula which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, turning it into its major military base supplying the positions in the south and southeast of Ukraine it occupies. 

If the blast was intentional — it was known that the Russian troops mined the dam — it might be haphazard: Ukrainian officials claimed that Russian ammunition storages were flooded as a result. Moscow predictably blamed Ukraine for the blast, which flooded a dozen towns and villages and parts of the city of Kherson, leaving thousands without clean water and causing enormous ecological damage to the drought-prone area. 

Ukrainian authorities and volunteers launched a mass evacuation of people and animals from the areas immediately affected by floods, as some places were fully submerged. Those who stayed or planned to return soon were warned not to drink the local water, which is now contaminated with chemicals from the plant as well as poisons from cemeteries, sewages, and outhouses, and not to eat the fish which are dying en masse throughout the region. The locals were also asked to beware of explosive devices, which the flood is now supposedly carrying from the minefields.

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