SLOVIANSK, Ukraine (AP) – Ukrainian military personnel are fortifying their positions around the eastern city of Sloviansk in anticipation of a new Russian attempt to seize the strategic point in the hard-fought Donetsk region.
As heavy ground fighting continues on the front lines just miles east, southeast and north of Sloviansk, members of the Dnipro-1 Regiment dig in after a week of relative calm. The last Russian strike on the city took place on July 30.
While the calm has provided Sloviansk’s remaining residents with a respite after regular shelling between April and July, some members of the unit say it could be a prelude to new attacks.
“I think it won’t be quiet for long. Eventually, there will be an attack,” Col. Yuriy Bereza, head of the volunteer national guard regiment, told The Associated Press on Friday, adding that he expected the region to become “hot” in the coming days.
Sloviansk is seen as a strategic target in Moscow’s ambitions to seize all of Donetsk province, a predominantly Russian-speaking region in eastern Ukraine where Russian forces and pro-Moscow separatists control about 60 percent of the territory.
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Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk province, which Russia has almost entirely seized since Ukrainian forces withdrew in early July from the remaining cities under their control, together make up the industrial region of Donbass. The separatists have claimed the region as two independent republics since 2014, and Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized their sovereignty before sending troops into Ukraine.
Taking 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 captured by the separatists during a flare-up of hostilities between Russia and Ukraine in 2014, though it later came back under Ukrainian control.
In addition, the Russian military would like to take control of neighboring water treatment facilities to serve Russian-held cities such as 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 were increasingly moving personnel and equipment from the Donbass into southern Ukraine to repel a Ukrainian counteroffensive around the occupied city -port. Kherson.
These attempts to secure Kherson come “at his expense [Russian] efforts to capture Sloviansk … which appear to have been abandoned,” the institute’s analysts said.
But Colonel Bereza said he believed muddy conditions following recent rainy weather in the area, rather than the abandonment of Sloviansk as a target, were responsible for the cessation of Russian artillery strikes.
“In two or three days, when it dries, they will move on,” he said.
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Only about 20,000 residents remain in Sloviansk, down from over 100,000 before the Russian invasion. The city has been without gas or water for months, and residents can only hand-pump drinking water from public wells.
From a position on the outskirts of the city, soldiers in the Dnipro-1 Regiment extended a network of trenches and dug bunkers against mortar strikes and phosphorus bombs.
At the outpost, Sgt. Maj. Shevtsov said the provision of heavy weapons by Ukraine’s western allies, including U.S.-supplied multiple rocket launchers, had helped keep some Donbas cities, such as Sloviansk, relatively safe since their surrender in June.
But such weapons likely only bought time for Ukrainian forces, he said, adding that the lack of strikes in the past week “worries me.” In his experience, calm means the Russians are getting ready to go on the offensive.
Another officer, Cmdr. Ihor Krylchatenko said he suspected the silence could be broken within days.
“We were warned that there could be an attack on August 7 or 8,” he said. “We’ll see, but we’re ready.”
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