Kyiv said its army had retaken four villages in the eastern Donetsk region as it seeks to push south and threaten the Kremlin’s main defensive lines.

Ukraine has claimed the first battlefield gains since launching its counteroffensive against Russian forces, saying it liberated a number of villages over the weekend after heavy fighting on the southern and eastern fronts of the war.

The Ukrainian 35th brigade released a video on Monday of soldiers raising the blue and yellow national flag over what they say is the reclaimed village of Storozheve in the eastern Donetsk region.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said its army had also retaken three other nearby towns as it tried to push south and threaten Russia’s main defensive lines.

“It will be the same with every settlement until we liberate all Ukrainian territory,” Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said.

The breakthroughs were celebrated on social media. But they are small-scale victories in the early days of what is expected to be a long and difficult effort to drive Kremlin forces out of occupied territory in the south and east of the country.

“Appropriate counter-offensive and defensive actions are being carried out in Ukraine. I won’t say in detail what stage they are in,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said at a weekend news conference in kyiv, his first public acknowledgment of the campaign.

Ukrainian officials have called for operational silence so as not to compromise their efforts on the battlefield, but in recent days they have reported their first successes. Russian authorities have not confirmed the losses, but the country’s increasingly influential military bloggers acknowledged initial setbacks, starting with the town of Blahodatne.

Valeriy Shershen, a Ukrainian military spokesman, said Russian forces were entrenched in the village club and were only driven out after house-to-house fighting.

«When the fighting ended, the people came out of the cellars and greeted their liberators. It was a very moving moment that inspires and creates motivation to keep going,” he said in a statement.

The launch of the counteroffensive has also seen the battlefield debut of Western-supplied armored vehicles such as German Leopard tanks and US-made Bradley fighting vehicles.

Video footage reviewed by NBC News showed Ukrainian forces using Bradleys in combat for the first time near the small town of Orikhiv in the Zaporizhzhia region, which has witnessed some of the fiercest fighting of the counteroffensive so far. .

A Bradley was disabled after taking a direct hit, but its heavy armor protected the troops inside from the worst of the impact. In the video, soldiers are seen releasing smoke canisters to conceal their escape before evacuating a second Bradley.

Images released by the Russian Defense Ministry show the aftermath of the same skirmish, with the Bradleys and Leopards disabled or partially destroyed. It was unclear what losses the Russian forces might have suffered during the encounter. 

Anton Borshch, a Ukrainian soldier who recently came off the front lines in the east, told NBC News that Western vehicles were making a significant difference.

“These are more manoeuvrable, better quality, more precise equipment that allow us to clear tree lines and enemy fortifications much faster. My guys are in a Bradley, they calmly clear the ground and they can also evacuate the dead and wounded from the battlefield,” he declared.

Other images released by the Ukrainian 59th Brigade showed a pair of US Humvees with mounted heavy machine guns taking part in an attack on a Russian bunker near the Donetsk town of Avdiivka.

Moscow claims that its forces are resisting the Ukrainian attacks.

Over the weekend, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu awarded medals to troops who he said had managed to destroy NATO-supplied vehicles.

But away from the front lines in Ukraine, Shoigu is locked in an increasingly bitter political battle with Yevgeny Prigozhin, the volatile head of the Wagner mercenary group.

Prigozhin said on Sunday he would defy orders for his mercenaries to sign formal contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry, a move that would increase the Kremlin’s control over Wagner’s private army.

“Wagner will not sign any contract with Shoigu,” Prigozhin said, accusing him of mismanagement. It was the latest in a series of angry volleys from the head of the mercenaries against the Russian military leadership.

However, at the end of his defiant statement, Prigozhin reiterated that his forces remained completely loyal to the “supreme commander-in-chief,” Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Ukrainian counter-offensive began last week but was overshadowed by the destruction of a major strategic dam on the Dnieper River. The resulting torrent of water has inundated dozens of towns and cities in the southern war zone, stranding many people and forcing thousands to be evacuated by boat.

Ukraine claims first breakthroughs in its counteroffensive against Russia

On Monday, Ukrainian Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko said that 10 people had died in the Kherson and Mykolaiv regions as a result of the dam collapse and that 42 people, including seven children, were reported missing.

Kremlin-appointed Kherson region chief Vladimir Saldo said on Friday that at least eight people were among the dead on the Russian-controlled side of the river.

Anastasiia Parafeniuk  and Bill O’Reilly