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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has given his clearest indication yet that his military's long-awaited push to liberate territory held by Russia’s occupying forces is underway, saying “relevant counteroffensive defensive actions are taking place in Ukraine.”
Speaking in Kyiv Saturday, the Ukrainian leader was asked to respond to comments by his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, who claimed Friday that the Ukrainian counteroffensive has certainly begun — and was not finding success.
Zelensky shrugged off Putin’s suggestions that Ukraine’s armed forces were struggling and sought to apply some psychological pressure of his own.
“It is interesting that Putin was talking about our counteroffensive," Zelensky said in response. "It is important that Russia feels (the counteroffensive), feels that they do not have much time left."
Zelensky said “relevant counteroffensive defensive actions are taking place in Ukraine," but said he "will not give any details about the stage it is at.”
Key context: After spending most of the winter embroiled in fighting around the eastern city of Bakhmut, as well as training its soldiers and waiting for the arrival of Western military aid, like tanks and longer-range strike weapons, the last few weeks have seen Ukraine clearly step up military activities.
These have included shaping operations – strikes on targets far behind front lines, like fuel depots and soldiers’ barracks. And more recently, Ukraine's military has conducted probing operations, designed to test the enemy’s weak spots as well as its combat readiness.
However, it is still far from clear that Ukraine has begun moving large numbers of ground forces forward in an attempt to recapture the swathes of territory held by Russian occupying forces.
Moscow's battlefield reports: Russia’s Ministry of Defense is reporting further Ukrainian offensive operations along the front line to the south and east of Zaporizhzhia, at a level of intensity consistent with that seen since the start of the week.
Troops from the Vostok brigade immediately to the southeast of the frontline town of Orikhiv had repelled two attempted advances by Ukrainian tank units, according to a Telegram post from the defense ministry. One was near the village of Novopokrovka, the post stated.
In addition, it said two Ukrainian armored columns had been repelled near the villages of Novodanilovka and Mala Tamkachka. In the same area, Russian military bloggers said Russian troops in positions close to the road south of Orikhiv toward Tokmak were continuing to report extremely heavy Ukrainian artillery fire.
Further east along the front line, to the southwest of Velyka Novosilka in the Donetsk region, the Russian Ministry of Defense said Ukrainian forces had made three further attempted advances, which it said had all been defeated.
CNN is unable to verify the Russian claims, and the picture is no clearer from the Ukrainian side. Officials in Kyiv have disclosed little information since they stepped up activities along the front between Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk roughly six days ago.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Saturday promised to hand over a seized An-124 Russian cargo jet to Ukraine.
"Today, through the legislation we passed, we are confiscating this aircraft that was owned by Russia and we are beginning the process of transferring this asset to Ukraine so that it will never again be used by Russia in support of war," Trudeau said during his visit to Kyiv.
According to Russian state news agency TASS, the transport aircraft belonging to a Russian airline, arrived in Toronto on February 27 of last year carrying a shipment of Covid tests from China. The aircraft, which was chartered by the Canadian government, arrived two hours before authorities of the North American country closed the sky to Russian flights because of the situation in Ukraine.
The plane has remained in Canada, and will now go to the country where Moscow has been waging a war for over a year since.
Oleg Stepanov, the Russian ambassador to Canada, called the country's decision to hand the seized plane over to Ukraine “illegal” and “common theft” in an interview with TASS Saturday.
New sanctions: During his visit, Trudeau also announced new sanctions against several individuals and companies that are contributing to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
"So far, Canada has imposed sanctions on more than 2,500 organizations and individuals," the prime minister said. "And today we are announcing new sanctions against 24 individuals and 17 organizations as part of special economic measures for Ukraine."
Starting Monday, NATO will be holding an unprecedented air defense exercise over Europe in what is seen as a show of force to Russia.
About 10,000 air service members are gathering in Germany to simulate a NATO response to an attack on an alliance member country.
CNN's Nic Robertson looks at how NATO is preparing:
Deep inside a makeshift bunker, residents of Orikhiv await an aid delivery while artillery shakes the ground above.
“It’s comfortable here,” 72-year-old Olga Shumska says, unfazed by the commotion outside. The town in the southern Zaporizhzhia region sits just 5 kilometers (about 3 miles) away from a front line where Ukrainian forces have been making a recent push.
“I’m not afraid, I’m used to it and I don’t want to go anywhere from here. I tell myself that soon the war will end and we will live normally,” she said.
But this is far from normal. Months of shelling have destroyed most of the town’s infrastructure, leaving Orikhiv without electricity, gas or water.
“It is very dangerous. We had people killed and wounded and there is a lot of destruction,” Shumska explains. “In August last year, my house was also destroyed.”
Most of the town’s 1,400 remaining residents, down from a pre-war population of 14,000, now live in basements, and these bunkers — so-called "invisibility centers" — are the only place they are able to shower, do laundry, charge their phones or eat a warm meal.
“We’re here almost every day, because it is safe here, our friends are here,” Shumska’s neighbor Nina Sokol says. “Tomorrow there will be a church service until noon. So we’ll be here for 3 to 4 hours and after the service, we will have dinner and go home.”
An unfathomable existence for most, but not for Sokol.
“What is there to be afraid of?” the 71-year-old asks. “There are no two deaths. There is only one death.”
The trick, she says, is to try and delay it, an increasingly difficult task for the residents of Orikhiv, who rely on deliveries from aid agencies to survive.
Today they’re getting a box of food with a long shelf life that should last them for a week or two. But deliveries like these are not easy.
“Orikhiv is one of the most dangerous places in Zaporizhzhia region,” says Vitaliy Kubushka from the Global Empowerment Mission (GEM) and the Howard Buffet Foundation, the organization behind the aid. “The town is shelled every 24 hours.”
And with the Zaporizhzhia front line becoming more active because of an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive, aid deliveries may become more rare.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called on other countries and international organizations to help rescue Nova Kakhovka dam collapse victims in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine.
In his nightly address on Saturday, Zelensky claimed “Russia does not provide any real help to the people in the flooded areas” that are under its control.
“In the occupied territory, it is only possible to help people in some areas – Russian terrorists are doing everything to make the victims of the disaster as many as possible. Russian shelling continues – even at evacuation points,” Zelensky said.
“We are pressing and encouraging so that international organizations and international support come to the part of Kherson region where the occupiers are now,” Zelensky added.
Remember: Ukraine controls the west bank of the Dnipro River and the city of Kherson after its counteroffensive last year, while Russian troops remain on the east bank in the larger Kherson region.
Over 3,000 people have now been evacuated in Ukrainian-controlled areas of the Kherson and Mykolaiv regions, according to Zelensky.
The Ukrainian president also criticized some countries and international organizations for failing to react swiftly and provide support.
“When international organizations that are supposed to protect life on a global scale do not have time to organize and send a rescue mission to the occupied territory even in a week when some world players do not dare to come out even with clear and strong statements that would condemn this new Russian war crime, terrorists are simply fueled by this weakness of the world, this indifference – it encourages them,” he said.
On Saturday, the Russian Foreign Ministry again blamed the Armed Forces of Ukraine for the dam’s collapse, saying in a statement that “regular attacks” on the dam led to the collapse and subsequent flooding.
During a joint news conference with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trudeau said the country will help "maintain and support Ukraine's fighter jet program, leveraging Canadian expertise in these areas."
Trudeau also announced that Canada will contribute to an initiative for the maintenance of Leopard battle tanks that Ukraine’s allies have provided to Kyiv.
“We will provide an additional 287 AIM-7 missiles, which will support Ukraine in its efforts to defend Ukrainian skies,” he added, referring to a type of medium-range air-to-air missile. “And from existing funds, we will provide 10,000 rounds of 105-millimeter ammunition to the Ukraine security forces."
Trudeau said an additional $500 million is being allocated as military funding.
On the dam collapse: The Canadian prime minister also commented on the disastrous flooding following a break in southern Ukraine’s Nova Kakhovka dam.
"There is absolutely no doubt in our mind, that the destruction of the dam was the direct consequence of Russia's decision to invade a peaceful neighbor,” he said.
As CNN has previously reported, it’s not currently possible to say whether the dam collapsed because it was deliberately targeted or if the breach could have been caused by structural failure. Kyiv and Moscow have each accused the other of causing the collapse.
“Russia's war in Ukraine has devastated infrastructure, has destroyed families and taken lives, and is causing economic, food, energy shortages around the world. Russia is responsible and will be held to account,” Trudeau said.
He also announced the provision of $10 million Canadian (around $7.46 million USD) to help flooding victims.
On NATO: During their meeting in Kyiv on Saturday, the two leaders also adopted a declaration in which Canada supports Ukraine's accession to NATO as soon as circumstances allow.
"Canada supports Ukraine to become a NATO member as soon as conditions allow for it. Ukraine and Canada look forward to addressing these issues at the NATO Summit in Vilnius in July 2023," according to the text of the declaration.
Zelensky has previously said he understands his country cannot become a member of NATO while it is still at war.
Ukrainian forces have advanced nearly a mile in the embattled eastern city of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region in the past day, Ukraine’s military said.
“Taking advantage of the fact that the enemy was conducting rotational activities and swapping its units, we were trying to strike at the enemy and counterattack. During the last 24 hours, we managed to advance up to 1400 meters (0.87 miles) in different areas,” Serhii Cherevatyi, spokesperson for the Eastern Grouping of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, said on national TV.
Russian forces are “actively defending and trying to hit our units,” he added.
“We are moving towards a trend where our forces will be in more favorable positions than the enemy. We have already taken a number of hills,” Cherevatyi said.
Some background: The front line in eastern Ukraine is still the “epicenter” of the fighting, Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, said on Friday, adding that Ukrainian troops were “engaged in active combat” around Bakhmut.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, chief of the Russian mercenary group Wagner, claimed on May 20 to have captured the city after a prolonged battle, adding that he would hand Bakhmut over to Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin celebrated “the completion of the operation."
However, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky denied the claims the following day, stating that his troops are still there and insisting, “We are keeping on, we are fighting.”
Valentina and Leonid Stoyanov — Ukrainian veterinarians known to their millions of social media followers as the “Vet Crew” — immediately traveled to the southern region of Kherson after this week's devastating dam collapse.
The pair specialize in treating exotic animals, but they have been rescuing pets left behind by Ukrainian refugees when Russia launched its full-scale invasion, treating animals by the hundreds in their Odesa clinic. They also travel to the front lines to feed and vaccinate dogs and cats close to the fighting.
It didn’t take long to find a group of cats who needed their help upon arriving in Kherson this week, Valentina told CNN.
“We started checking flooded streets and houses. … We noticed a large number of cats, but in a dry area. And we thought that, most likely, there could be kittens. Leo at the same moment heard the cry of kittens, and then we noticed two kittens sitting on the fence but completely wet and surrounded by water. Leo went into the water after them,” Valentina said.
After saving those kittens, the Stoyanovs heard the cry of another cat. Leo, nearly shoulder-deep in floodwater, followed the cries. Valentina described the rescue: “He saw how this red kitten was clinging to the fence with all her might. When we pulled them all out, we saw that their stomachs were filled with water and they were very cold. But we did everything we could to save them, and now they are completely safe.”
The water rescues are all the more daring due to Leonid’s health. He jumped into the water despite recently spending a week in the hospital after suffering his second heart attack since the start of the war.
“He doesn't have time to rest because so many animals need his help," Valentina said.
The Stoyanovs shared video of the recent rescues on social media. After treating the cats, they will work on finding them new homes, they said.
In addition to the felines, Valentina says they rescued several dogs and two young owls with fractured bones.
You can read more about the Stoyanovs here: