Vladimir Putin says Ukrainian troops have started a long-expected counter-offensive and are suffering “significant” losses.
The Russian president’s comments, hours after a string of drone strikes inside Russian territory, formed his latest effort to shape the narrative of the invasion he ordered more than 15 months ago, sparking widespread international condemnation and reviving Cold War-style tensions.
The conflict entered a complex new phase this week with the rupture of a Dnieper River dam that sent floodwaters gushing through a large area of the front in southern Ukraine.
Tens of thousands of civilians already facing the misery of regular shelling fled for higher ground on both sides of the swollen and sprawling waterway.
Ukraine has played down talk of a counter-offensive, reasoning that the less said about its military moves the better.
Speaking after he visited flood zones on Thursday, President Volodymyr Zelensky said he was in touch with Ukrainian forces “in all the hottest areas” and praised an unspecified “result” from their efforts.
Mr Putin said Russian forces have the upper hand, telling reporters in Sochi: “We can clearly say the offensive has started, as indicated by the Ukrainian army’s use of strategic reserves.
“But the Ukrainian troops haven’t achieved their stated tasks in a single area of fighting.”
Kyiv has not specified whether reservists have been mobilised to the front, but western allies have poured firepower, defensive systems and other military assets and advice into Ukraine, raising the stakes for the counter-offensive.
“We are seeing that the Ukrainian regime’s troops are suffering significant losses,” Mr Putin said. “It’s known that the offensive side suffers losses of three to one — it’s sort of classic — but in this case, the losses significantly exceed that classic level.”
On Friday, Ukrainian deputy defence minister Hanna Maliar said Russia was on the defensive in the south-eastern Zaporizhzhia province, though the epicentre of fighting remained in the east, particularly in the Donetsk region.
She described “heavy battles” in Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiivka and Marinka.
Valerii Shershen, a spokesman for Ukraine’s armed forces in Zaporizhzhia, told Radio Liberty they were searching for weaknesses in Russia’s defences, which Moscow was trying to strengthen by deploying mines, constructing fortifications and regrouping.
Earlier, regional authorities in south-west Russia near the Ukrainian border reported the latest flurry of drone strikes, which have exposed the vulnerabilities of Moscow’s air defence systems.
The regional governor of Voronezh, Alexander Gusev, said a drone had crashed into a high-rise apartment building in the city of the same name, injuring three residents who were hit by shards of glass.
Russian state media published photos of windows blown out and damage to the facade.
Mr Gusev said the drone was targeting a nearby air base but veered off course after its signal was jammed. The city lies 155 miles north of Ukraine’s Luhansk region, most of which is occupied by Russia.
Vyacheslav Gladkov, governor of the neighbouring Belgorod region, which also borders Ukraine, said air defences had shot down two unspecified targets overnight.
An apartment building and private homes were damaged, he said, without saying by what. He also said a drone fell on the roof of an office building in the city of Belgorod. It failed to detonate but caught fire on impact, causing “insignificant damage”.
The leader of a third region of Russia, Kursk governor Roman Starovoit, said a drone had crashed to the ground outside an oil depot and near water reservoirs in the local capital, causing no casualties or damage.
In Ukraine, the governor of the Kherson region, Oleksandr Prokudin, said on Friday that water levels had decreased by about 8in overnight on the western bank of the Dnieper, which was inundated from Tuesday after the breach of the Nova Kakhovka dam upstream.
Officials on both sides indicated that about 20 people have died in the flooding.
Kyiv accused Russia of blowing up the dam and its hydropower plant, which Russian forces controlled, while Moscow said Ukraine bombarded it.