Ukrainian unit digs in for Russian attack on eastern city

The Ukrainian military is strengthening its position around the eastern city of Slovyansk in anticipation of a new Russian attempt to seize a strategic point in fierce fighting over the Donetsk region.

As heavy ground fighting continues on the front lines just a few miles east, southeast and north of Slovyansk, the Dnepr-1 regiment is digging in after a week of relative calm.

The last Russian attack on the city was made on 30 July.

While the lull has given the remaining residents of Sloviansk a respite from regular shelling from April to July, some members of the unit say it could be a prelude to renewed attacks.

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(PA graphics)

“I think the calm will be short-lived. In the end, there will be an assault,” the commander of the Volunteer National Guard Regiment, Colonel Yuri Bereza, told The Associated Press, adding that it would be “hot” in the area in the coming days.

Slovyansk is seen as a strategic target for Moscow in its bid to seize the entire Donetsk region, a largely Russian-speaking region in eastern Ukraine where Russian forces and pro-Moscow separatists control about 60% of the territory.

Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk region, which Russia almost completely took over after the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops in early July from the cities remaining under its control, together make up the industrial region of Donbass.

The separatists had declared the region two independent republics since 2014, and Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized their sovereignty before moving troops into Ukraine.

Capturing Slovyansk would bring much of the region under Russian control, but it would also be a symbolic victory for Moscow.

The city was first taken by separatists during the outbreak of hostilities between Russia and Ukraine in 2014, but was later returned to Ukrainian control.

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Ukrainian soldier Sergei Artimiev rests near his tent during a period of relative calm around his position near Slovyansk in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine. (David Goldman/AP)

In addition, the Russian military would like to take control of nearby water treatment facilities to service Russian-occupied cities such as Donetsk in the southeast and Mariupol in the south, Artur Shevtsov, Sergeant Major of the Dnepr-1 Regiment, said.

The Institute for the Study of War, a think tank based in Washington, said in an assessment that Russian forces are increasingly moving personnel and equipment from the Donbass to southern Ukraine to fend off a Ukrainian counteroffensive around the occupied port city of Kherson.

These attempts to seize Kherson are being “at the expense of (Russian) attempts to seize Slovyansk … which they seem to have abandoned,” the institute’s analysts say.

But Colonel Bereza said he believed the pause in Russian artillery shelling was due to muddy weather conditions following recent rainy weather in the region, rather than the abandonment of Slovyansk as a target.

“After two or three days, when it dries, they will continue,” he said.

Only about 20,000 inhabitants remained in Sloviansk, compared to over 100,000 before the Russian invasion.

The city has been without gas and water for several months, and residents can only manually pump drinking water from public wells.

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Members of the Dnepr-1 regiment carry logs to fortify their positions near Sloviansk. (David Goldman/AP)

From a position on the outskirts of the city, the men of the Dnepr-1 regiment expanded the network of trenches and dug dugouts to protect against mortar attacks and phosphorus bombs.

In the post, Sergeant Major Shevtsov said heavy weapons shipments by Ukraine’s Western allies, including US-supplied multiple rocket launchers, have helped keep some Donbas cities, such as Slovyansk, relatively safe since they were delivered in June.

But such weapons were likely only buying time for Ukrainian forces, he said, adding that the lack of strikes last week “worries me.”

In his experience, a lull means the Russians are preparing to go on the attack.

Another officer, commander Igor Krylchatenko, said he suspected the silence could be broken within days.

“We were warned that there could be an assault on August 7 or 8,” he said.

“We’ll see, but we’re ready.”