KYIV, Ukraine -- Russia says it thwarted a large Ukrainian attack in the eastern province of Donetsk, though it's unclear if this was the start of a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
The Russian Defense Ministry, in a rare early morning video today, said its forces pushed back a "large scale" Ukrainian assault on Sunday at five points in Donetsk, one of four Ukrainian regions Russia illegally annexed last fall.
"The enemy's goal was to break through our defenses in the most vulnerable, in its opinion, sector of the front," said the ministry's spokesman, Igor Konashenkov. "The enemy did not achieve its tasks. It had no success."
Konashenkov said 250 Ukrainian personnel were killed, and 16 Ukrainian tanks, three infantry fighting vehicles and 21 armored combat vehicles were destroyed.
Ukraine didn't comment, and often waits until the completion of its military operations to confirm its actions, imposing news blackouts in the interim.
And in a rare specific mention of the presence of Russia's top military leaders in battlefield operations, the spokesman said the chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, "was at one of the forward command posts."
Russian forces declared victory in the eastern Ukraine city of Bakhmut last month after the longest, deadliest battle since their full-scale invasion of Ukraine began 15 months ago. But Ukrainian defenders like battalion commander Oleg Shiryaev aren't retreating. Instead, they are keeping up the pressure and continuing the fight from positions on the western fringes of Bakhmut.
Watching imagery from a drone camera overhead, Shiryaev warned his men in nearby trenches that Russian forces were advancing across a field toward a patch of trees outside Bakhmut.
The leader of the 225th Battalion of the 127th Kharkiv Territorial Defense Brigade then ordered a mortar team to get ready. A target was locked. A mortar tube popped out a loud orange blast, and an explosion cut a new crater in an already pockmarked hillside.
"We are moving forward," Shiryaev said after at least one drone image showed a Russian fighter struck down. "We fight for every tree, every trench, every dugout."
The pushback gives commanders in Moscow another thing to think about ahead of a much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive that appears to be taking shape.
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Russia sought to create the impression of calm around Bakhmut, but in fact, artillery shelling still goes on at levels similar to those at the height of the battle to take the city. The fight, she said, is evolving into a new phase.
"The battle for the Bakhmut area hasn't stopped; it is ongoing, just taking different forms," Maliar, dressed in her characteristic fatigues, said in an interview from a military media center in Kyiv. Russian forces are now trying -- but failing -- to oust Ukrainian fighters from the "dominant heights" overlooking Bakhmut.
"We are holding them very firmly," she said.
From the Kremlin's perspective, the area around Bakhmut is just part of the more than 621-mile front line that the Russian military must hold. That task could be made more difficult by the withdrawal of the mercenaries from private military contractor Wagner Group who helped take control of the city. They will be replaced with Russian soldiers.
For Ukrainian forces, recent work has been opportunistic -- trying to wrest small gains from the enemy and taking strategic positions, notably from two flanks on the northwest and southwest, where the Ukrainian 3rd Separate Assault Brigade has been active, officials said.
Russia had envisioned the capture of Bakhmut as partial fulfillment of its ambition to seize control of the eastern Donbas region, Ukraine's industrial heartland. Now, its forces have been compelled to regroup, rotate fighters and rearm just to hold the city. Wagner's owner announced a pullout after acknowledging the loss of more than 20,000 of his men.
Maliar described the nine-month struggle against Wagner forces in nearly existential terms: "If they had not been destroyed during the defense of Bakhmut, one can imagine that all these tens of thousands would have advanced deeper into Ukrainian territory."
The fate of Bakhmut, which is largely in ruins, has been overshadowed in recent days by near-nightly attacks on Kyiv, a series of unclaimed drone strikes near Moscow and the growing anticipation that Ukraine's government will try to regain ground.
But the battle for the city could still have a lingering impact. Moscow has made the most of its capture, epitomized by triumphalism in Russian media. Any slippage of Russia's grip would be a political embarrassment for President Vladimir Putin.
Michael Kofman of the Center for Naval Analyses, a U.S. research group, noted in a podcast last week that the victory brings new challenges in holding Bakhmut.
With Wagner fighters withdrawing, Russian forces are "going to be increasingly fixed to Bakhmut ... and will find it difficult to defend," Kofman told "War on the Rocks" in an interview posted Tuesday.
"And so they may not hold on to Bakhmut, and the whole thing may have ended up being for nothing for them down the line," he added.
A Western official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Russian airborne forces are heavily involved in replacing the departing Wagner troops -- a step that is "likely to antagonize" the airborne leadership, who see the duty as a further erosion of their "previously elite status" in the military.
Ukrainian forces have clawed back slivers of territory on the flanks -- a few hundred yards per day -- to solidify defensive lines and seek opportunities to retake some urban parts of the city, said one Ukrainian analyst.
"The goal in Bakhmut is not Bakhmut itself, which has been turned into ruins," military analyst Roman Svitan said by phone. The goal for the Ukrainians is to hold on to the western heights and maintain a defensive arc outside the city.
Information for this article was contributed by Hanna Arhirova, Illia Novikov, Yuras Karmanau, Jill Lawless and Andrew Katell of The Associated Press.