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Greg Myre

Ukraine's Zelenskyy confirms that an offensive against Russia is underway

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks during a joint news conference with Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Saturday. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Saturday gave his first formal confirmation that Ukraine's long-awaited offensive was underway against Russian troops.

"Counteroffensive and defensive actions are taking place in Ukraine. At what stage, I will not say in detail," Zelenskyy said in a joint news conference with visiting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The Canadian leader pledged an additional $375 million in military aid to Ukraine. His country has provided some $6 billion since Russia launched a full-scale invasion more than 15 months ago.

Ukraine's offensive has been gradually coming into focus in recent days, with ground attacks against Russian troops in three separate areas in the southeast and east of the country.

Prior to Zelenskyy's remarks, Ukrainian leaders had declined to say whether the operation had begun. The Ukrainians have repeatedly said they will share few details about their offensive, billed as the biggest such operation since the Russian invasion in February of last year.

Meanwhile, Russian leader Vladimir Putin said Friday that Russian forces were beating back Ukrainian attempts to advance.

"We can clearly say the offensive has started, as indicated by the Ukrainian army's use of strategic reserves," Putin said during a meeting with other heads of state in the southern Russian city of Sochi. "But the Ukrainian troops haven't achieved their stated tasks in a single area of fighting."

Zelenskyy responded on Saturday, saying, "I am in daily contact with our commanders. Everyone is positive. So pass it on to Putin."

An apartment building in the southern Ukrainian port city of Odesa was damaged by a Russian drone strike as part of a broader air assault on the city Friday night and Saturday morning. (Nina Lyashonok/AP)

Ukrainian attacks in three separate areas

According to multiple reports, Ukrainian troops are attempting two separate thrusts into the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region, and one near the eastern town of Bakhmut.

Many military analysts had predicted Ukraine would attack the southeast in an effort to divide the Russian forces in the east of Ukraine from the Russian forces in the southern peninsula of Crimea.

One of Russia's few successes in the fighting was to establish a land bridge along Ukraine's southeastern coast last year, linking up the two groups of Russian fighters.

As Ukraine tries to sever that link it faces Russian troops that have had months to prepare. The Russians have reportedly built multi-layer defenses that include trenches, minefields and concrete barriers in the areas where Ukraine is considered most likely to attack.

In a further challenge for the Ukrainians, much of the terrain in the southeast is flat farmland, providing little cover for armies trying to advance.

Still, the Ukrainians believe they can deliver a powerful blow to the Russians with brigades that feature thousands of troops recently trained in NATO countries, as well as an upgrade in weaponry supplied by the West.

While video and photos from the battlefield have been limited, some images show the Ukrainians employing recently acquired Bradley Fighting Vehicles from the U.S. and Leopard tanks from Germany.

"We are seeing newly Western trained and equipped Ukrainian brigades participating in significant armored assaults on Russian positions," said Dmitri Alperovitch, an analyst who has closely monitored the war. "Those brigades with that equipment were explicitly built for this counteroffensive."

Russians knock out Western equipment supplied to Ukraine

However, Russia's Defense Ministry released a photo showing several of these armored vehicles in a cluster after they'd been damaged and abandoned by the Ukrainians.

But Alperovitch, who heads the Silverado Policy Accelerator, a Washington think tank, said that early setback shouldn't be surprising.

"As the offensive has just begun, it's too early to say how it's going to pan out," he told NPR. "Ukraine is assaulting heavily fortified Russian positions. It is expected that they would sustain significant casualties."

In addition to Ukraine's push in the southeast, the military is also attempting to advance near the eastern town of Bakhmut.

Russia recently seized the town, which was reduced to rubble in months of heavy fighting. But Ukraine says it is making some progress to the north and south of the town in renewed fighting in recent days.

Many analysts believe Ukraine's goal in Bakhmut is to keep the Russian forces occupied in the town so they can't leave to reinforce Russian troops in the southeast.

Elsewhere, the Russian military continues to fire missiles and launch drones at Ukrainian cities around the country.

Russia fired more than 40 times on Ukraine from Friday night to Saturday morning in three separate locations. Four Ukrainians were killed and more than 25 injured, Ukrainian officials reported.

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