DRUZHKIVKA, Ukraine — Ukraine’s former defense strongholds in the east have come under intense attack in recent days, according to the Ukrainian military and Western military analysts.
That Ukrainian soldiers still maintain the labyrinthine trenches and fortifications in two suburban towns, Avdiivka and Pisky, outside the city of Donetsk, is a testament to the value of their entrenched positions in the east. Ukraine’s strong defensive positions have slowed the Russian army’s advance to a crawl, with only two major cities, Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, and a few dozen miles of territory changing hands despite thousands of soldiers being killed on both sides. .
It was unclear exactly why the attacks on fortifications have intensified, and the strikes are an exception to the general decline in Russian attacks in the eastern Donbas region, which had been the focus of the war for months. Some military analysts believe the relative calm is due in part to Russian forces diverting south to defend against a Ukrainian counteroffensive there.
The two cities, mostly deserted and destroyed, are not great prizes to capture, but if they were to fall it could facilitate Russian advances towards the three big cities in the Donetsk region that remain under Ukrainian control, Bakhmut, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.
The Ukrainian army and paramilitary groups built the fortifications in the two cities during eight years of low-intensity warfare after Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine in 2014 to prop up a breakaway region, the Donetsk People’s Republic. They are now among the easternmost positions in Ukraine.
Weaving through abandoned factories and mines, seizing farmhouse cellars, and using the swamps as natural barriers, the defensive lines there have withstood countless attacks. After failing to outflank Avdiivka, Russia began direct tank attacks this week, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research organization.
The institute pointed to Russian propaganda videos suggesting that Russian troops had overrun a position in the ventilation shaft of the Butiyka coal mine, which since 2015 had been the closest Ukrainian position to the city of Donetsk, a few miles away. what the separatists claim is their capital. .
The Ukrainian general staff has said the tank attacks did not drive its soldiers out of Avdiivka, but said they were partially successful, in a possible recognition of the loss of the strategically and politically important position.
“For days in a row, the enemy has not relented in attack attempts,” Ukrainian military governor of Avdiivka, Vitaliy Barabash, told Radio Liberty on Wednesday. “Everywhere it is being hit by artillery and aviation bombs.”
The Russian military also fired at the city with rockets that shoot flammable material into the air and then ignite it, creating a giant fireball. Russia’s thermobaric rocket system, dubbed Heatwave, is one of the most destructive weapons in Russia’s arsenal.
“People are living in horrible and inhumane conditions,” Barabash said. He said some 2,000 civilians remained in Avdiivka out of a pre-invasion population of about 20,000. “Every day, the city is bombed about 20 times,” he said.
Overall, Russia’s campaign in Donbas has tapered off in recent weeks after the appearance on the battlefield of the US HIMARS, the long-range rocket launch system used to hit ammunition depots behind Russian lines, and the start of Ukraine’s counteroffensive around the southern city of Kherson, according to Serhiy Grabskiy, a former colonel in the Ukrainian army and a commentator on the war for the Ukrainian media. Russia has diverted some 10,000 troops from the attack on Sloviansk to defend the south, he said.
“Ukrainian forces created quite effective defensive positions in the Donbas over the past few years,” Grabskiy said in a telephone interview. The Russians “are frankly stuck in Donbas right now with no real success,” he said. “And they have a new headache: the south, which from the perspective of the Ukrainian armed forces is a more important strategic target.”