DRUZHKIVKA, Ukraine — Long-standing Ukrainian defense strongholds in the east have come under intense attack in recent days, according to the Ukrainian military and Western military analysts.
The fact that Ukrainian soldiers still hold the labyrinthine trenches and fortifications in two suburban towns, Avdiivka and Pisky, on the outskirts of the city of Donetsk, testifies to the value of their entrenched positions to the east. Ukraine’s strong defensive positions slowed the advance of the Russian army, with only two major cities, Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, and a few tens of kilometers of territory changing hands despite thousands of soldiers killed on both sides.
It is unclear exactly why the assaults on the fortifications have intensified, and the assaults are an exception to a general decrease in Russian attacks in the eastern region of Donbass, which had been at the center of the war for months. Some military analysts believe the relative lull is partly the result of the diversion of Russian forces south to repel a Ukrainian counteroffensive there.
The two cities, mostly deserted and destroyed, are not big prizes to capture, but if they were to fall, it could facilitate Russian advances towards the three major cities in the Donetsk region remaining under Ukrainian control, Bakhmut, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.
The Ukrainian army and paramilitary groups built the fortifications of the two cities during the eight years of low-intensity warfare that followed Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine in 2014 to support a breakaway region, the Donetsk People’s Republic. They are now part of the easternmost positions in Ukraine.
Weaving through abandoned factories and mines, taking advantage of the root cellars of country houses, and using swamps as natural barriers, the defensive lines have withstood countless assaults. After failing to flank Avdiivka, Russia launched direct tank assaults this week, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research organization.
The institute noted Russian propaganda videos suggesting that Russian troops overran a position at the ventilation shaft of the Butiyka coal mine, which had been the closest Ukrainian position to the city of Donetsk since 2015. a few kilometers from what the separatists claim to be their capital. .
The Ukrainian General Staff said the tank assaults did not push its soldiers from Avdiivka, but noted that they were a partial success, in a possible recognition of the loss of the strategically and politically important position.
“For days in a row, the enemy has not ceased its attempts to attack,” the Ukrainian military governor of Avdiivka, Vitaliy Barabash, told Radio Liberty on Wednesday. “Everywhere is hit by artillery and aviation” bombs.
The Russian military also fired into the city with rockets that spray flammable material into the air and then ignite it, creating a giant ball of fire. The Russian thermobaric rocket system, nicknamed Heatwave, is one of the most destructive weapons in the Russian arsenal.
“People are living in horrific and inhumane conditions,” Barabash said. He said around 2,000 civilians remained in Avdiivka out of a pre-invasion population of around 20,000. “Every day the city is bombed about 20 times,” he said.
Overall, the Russian campaign in the Donbass has slowed down in recent weeks after the appearance on the battlefield of the American HIMARS, the long-range rocket launching system used to strike the ammunition depots behind Russian lines, and the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive around the southern city of Kherson, according to Serhiy Grabskiy, a former Ukrainian army colonel and war commentator for Ukrainian media. Russia diverted around 10,000 troops from the Sloviansk attack to defend the south, he said.
“Ukrainian forces have created quite effective defensive positions in the Donbass over the past few years,” Grabskiy said in a phone interview. The Russians “are frankly stuck in the Donbass now with no real success”, he said. “And they have a new puzzle: the south, which from the point of view of the Ukrainian armed forces is a more important strategic objective.”