KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine has entered “a new phase of the war,” a senior adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told NBC News Saturday as speculation about its long-anticipated counteroffensive ratcheted up.
“Now we see the intensifying attacks on the Russian rear supplies,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, adding that preparations were taking place to strike back at the Kremlin’s forces.
“We are preparing the battlefield for the new phase of the war. It’s going on now. It is a large number of measures in different sectors of the front line,” he said, conceding that preparation was well underway.
During the interview, Podolyak also praised a slickly produced video posted on Telegram Saturday by Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander in chief of Ukraine’s armed forces.
It showed Ukrainian troops training, swearing an oath and preparing for battle, alongside the caption “The time has come to return what is ours.”
If Ukraine’s top general is suggesting that, he’ll have a good reason, Podolyak said, calling it “very good.” He added that it showed “that Ukraine maybe almost ready to start a big operation aimed at the liberation of its territories.”
His comments followed his tweet the other day which said the counteroffensive was “not a ‘single event’ that will begin at a specific hour of a specific day with a solemn cutting of the red ribbon.”
Meanwhile, at the scene of some of the war’s heaviest fighting in the besieged eastern city of Bakhmut, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said Saturday that Russian attacks had “decreased.”
“Yesterday and today there are no active battles there — neither in the city, nor on the flanks,” Hanna Maliar said in a Telegram post. “Instead, the enemy is actively shelling the outskirts of the city.”
After an intense monthslong battle for the city that came to embody Ukrainian resistance, the Kremlin declared full control of the city last week after months of fighting not seen in Europe since World War II. But the celebrations were dismissed in Kyiv, where officials insisted that the city was not completely under Russian control and that the battle was far from over.
Maliar said Saturday that Ukrainian troops “firmly hold” the heights overlooking Bakhmut from the north and south, as well as a portion of the outskirts of the city, but had not advanced over the past two days to focus on “other tasks.”
Russian forces had “made a bet on conducting air strikes and intensive artillery fire,” she said. “The decrease in the enemy’s offensive activity is due to the fact that troops are being replaced and regrouped,” she added. “The enemy is trying to strengthen its own capabilities.”
Her comments came as Oleksandr Syrskyi, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, posted a video on Saturday which he said depicted Ukrainian special forces operating inside the ruined city.
NBC News has not been able to independently verify the video.
Elsewhere, Britain’s defense ministry in its daily intelligence briefing Saturday, that forces from the Wagner mercenary group whose fighters led the costly Russian push for Bakhmut, had “likely started to withdraw” from some of their positions in the city.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner’s millionaire owner with longtime links to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Thursday that his forces had started pulling out and were handing over control to the Russian military.
Prigozhin’s Bakhmut triumph delivered a badly needed victory for Putin, whose invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has lost momentum.
Elsewhere, an attack by two drones caused an explosion in Russia’s Pskov region near the border with Belarus, local governor Mikhail Vedernikov said on Telegram on Saturday.
An oil pipeline’s administrative building was damaged, he added.
Vedernikov did not point the finger at Ukraine, but Moscow has previously blamed Kyiv for similar incidents.
Molly Hunter reported from Kyiv and Leila Sackur from London.
Molly Hunter is a London-based correspondent for NBC News.