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 fiercely contested Donetsk region.
As intense ground fighting continues on the front lines just kilometers east, southeast and north of Sloviansk, members of the Dnipro-1 regiment are rallying after a week of relative calm.
The last Russian strike in the city took place on July 30.
While the calm provided Sloviansk’s remaining residents with respite 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 quiet for long. Eventually, there will be an assault,” Colonel Yurii Bereza, head of the Volunteer National Guard regiment, told the Associated Press, adding that he expected the area to “heat up ” in the coming days.
Sloviansk is considered a strategic target in Moscow’s ambitions to seize all of Donetsk province, a mostly Russian-speaking area in eastern Ukraine where Russian forces and pro-Moscow separatists control around 60% of the territory.
Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk province, which Russia has almost entirely captured since Ukrainian forces withdrew in early July from the remaining cities under its control, together make up the Donbas 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 into Ukraine.
Seizing Sloviansk would bring more of the region under Russian control, but it would also be a symbolic victory for Moscow.
The city was first seized by separatists during an outbreak of hostilities between Russia and Ukraine in 2014, although it has since returned to Ukrainian control.
In addition, the Russian military would like to take control of nearby water treatment facilities to serve Russian-occupied cities such as Donetsk in the southeast and Mariupol in the south, said Sergeant Major Artur Shevtsov of the Dnipro Regiment -1.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said in an assessment that Russian forces had increasingly transferred personnel and equipment from the Donbas to southern Ukraine to push back a Ukrainian counteroffensive around the occupied port city of Kherson.
Such attempts to secure Kherson come “at the expense of (Russian) efforts to seize Sloviansk … which they appear to have abandoned,” the institute’s analysts said.
But Colonel Bereza said he thought muddy conditions following recent rainy weather in the region, 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, they will proceed,” he said.
Only about 20,000 residents remain in Sloviansk, down from 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 from the Dnipro-1 regiment expanded a network of trenches and dug bunkers against mortar attacks and phosphorus bombs.
At the outpost, Sgt Maj Shevtsov said the supply of heavy weapons from Ukraine’s western allies, including US-supplied multiple rocket launchers, had helped keep some Donbas towns like Sloviansk relatively safe from their delivery in June
But those weapons are likely to have only bought Ukrainian forces time, he said, adding that the lack of strikes in the past week “worries me.”
In his experience, a lull means the Russians are preparing to attack.
Another officer, Commander Ihor Krylchatenko, said he suspected the silence could be broken within days.
“We were warned that there might be an assault on August 7 or 8,” he said.
“We’ll see, but we’re ready.”