SLOVIANSK, Ukraine — The Ukrainian military is reinforcing its positions around the eastern city of Sloviansk awaiting a new Russian attempt to seize the strategic point in the bitterly disputed region of Donetsk.
As fierce ground fighting continues on the front line just a few kilometers east, southeast and north of Sloviansk, members of the Dnipro-1 regiment are dug in after a week of relative calm. The last Russian strike on the city took place on July 30.
While the lull has provided a reprieve for the remaining residents of Sloviansk after regular shelling between April and July, some members of the unit say it could be a prelude to further attacks.
“I think it won’t be calm for long. Eventually there will be an assault,” Colonel Yurii Bereza, commander of the Volunteer National Guard regiment, told The Associated Press on Friday, adding that he expected the area to get “hot” in the coming months. days.
Sloviansk is seen as a strategic target in Moscow’s ambitions to seize all of Donetsk province, a largely Russian-speaking region in eastern Ukraine where Russian forces and pro-Moscow separatists control around 60 percent of the territory.
Donetsk and the neighboring province of Luhansk, which Russia has almost entirely captured since Ukrainian forces withdrew from the remaining towns under their control in early July, together make up the Donbass industrial region. The separatists have claimed the region as two independent republics since 2014, and Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized their sovereignty before sending troops to Ukraine.
Capturing Sloviansk would put more of the region under Russian control, but it would also be a symbolic victory for Moscow. The city was the first to be taken by separatists when hostilities broke out between Russia and Ukraine in 2014, although it was later brought back under Ukrainian control.
Additionally, the Russian military would like to take control of nearby water treatment facilities to serve Russian-occupied cities like Donetsk in the southeast and Mariupol in the south, Sgt. Major Artur Shevtsov of the Dnipro-1 regiment said.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said in an assessment on Friday that Russian forces had increasingly moved personnel and equipment from Donbass to southern Ukraine to repel a Ukrainian counter-offensive around the occupied port city of Kherson.
These attempts to secure Kherson are made “at the expense of (Russian) efforts to seize Sloviansk (…) which they seem to have abandoned”, the institute’s analysts said.
But Colonel Bereza said he believed muddy conditions after recent rainy weather in the area, and not the abandonment of Sloviansk as a target, were responsible for the pause in Russian artillery strikes.
“In two or three days, when it dries out, they will continue,” he said.
Only about 20,000 inhabitants remain in Sloviansk, compared to more than 100,000 before the Russian invasion. The city has been without gas or water for months and residents can only manually pump drinking water from public wells.
From a position on the outskirts of the city, soldiers of the Dnipro-1 regiment extended a network of trenches and dug bunkers against mortar fire and phosphorus bombs.
At the outpost, Sgt. Major Shevtsov said the supply of heavy weapons by Ukraine’s western allies, including multiple rocket launchers supplied by the United States, had helped keep some Donbass cities like Sloviansk relatively safe since their delivery in June.
But such weapons have probably only bought Ukrainian forces time, he said, adding that the lack of strikes over the past week “concerns me”. In his experience, a lull means the Russians are preparing to attack.
Another officer, Cmdr. Ihor Krylchatenko, said he suspected the silence could be broken within days.
“We have been warned that there could be an assault on August 7 or 8,” he said. “We will see, but we are ready.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine