Druzhivka, Ukraine – Ukraine’s long-standing defensive strengths in the east have come under intense attack in recent days, according to the Ukrainian military and Western military analysts.
The survival of Ukrainian soldiers in the labyrinths of trenches and fortifications in two suburban towns, Avdiivka and Pesky, on the outskirts of Donetsk, is evidence of the value of their positions dug to the east. Ukraine’s strong defensive positions slowed the Russian army’s advance to the point of creep, with only two large cities, Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, exchanging dozens of miles of land despite the thousands of soldiers killed on both sides.
It was not clear exactly why the attacks on the fortifications were intensified, and the attacks constitute an exception to the general decline of Russian attacks in the eastern Donbass region, which has been the focus of the war for months. Some military analysts believe that the relative calm was partly the result of Russian forces shifting south to fend off a Ukrainian counterattack there.
The two cities, often deserted and in ruins, were hardly big prizes to capture, but if they fell, it might soften the Russian advance toward the three great cities of the Donetsk region that remain under Ukrainian control, Bakhmut, Kramatorsk, and Slovyansk.
The Ukrainian army and paramilitary groups built fortifications in the two cities during eight years of low-intensity war after Russia’s 2014 military intervention in Ukraine in support of a breakaway region, the Donetsk People’s Republic. They are now among the locations in the Far East of Ukraine.
Weaving through abandoned factories and mines, making use of root basements in country houses and using swamps as natural barriers, the lines of defense there have withstood countless assaults. After failing to guard Avdiivka, Russia began direct tank attacks this week, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank.
The institute cited Russian propaganda videos indicating that Russian forces had overrun a vent site at the Butica coal mine, which since 2015 has been the closest Ukrainian site to the city of Donetsk, a few miles away from what the separatists claim is their capital. .
Ukraine’s General Staff said the tank attacks did not push its soldiers away from Avdiivka, but noted that they had been a partial success, in possible recognition of the loss of a strategically and politically important position.
“For days in a row now, the enemy has not held back the attempts to attack,” Vitaly Barabash, the Ukrainian military governor in Avdiivka, told Radio Liberty on Wednesday. “Everywhere is artillery and aviation bombs.”
The Russian military also fired on the town with missiles that sprayed flammable materials into the air and then ignited it, causing a giant fireball. The Russian thermal missile system, nicknamed the Heatwave, is one of the most destructive weapons in Russia’s arsenal.
“People are living in appalling and inhumane conditions,” Mr. Barabash said. He said that about 2,000 civilians remained in Avdiivka out of a population of about 20,000 before the invasion. “Every day, the city is bombed about 20 times,” he said.
In general, the Russian campaign in the Donbass subsided in recent weeks after the appearance of the American HIMARS on the battlefield, the long-range missile launch system used to strike ammunition depots behind Russian lines, and the start of the Ukrainian counterattack around the city of the South. Kherson, according to Serhiy Grabsky, a former colonel of the Ukrainian army and commentator on the war for the Ukrainian media. He said that Russia diverted about 10,000 soldiers from the attack on Slovinsk to defend the south.
“Ukrainian forces in Donbass have established highly effective defensive positions over the past several years,” Mr. Grabskiy said in a telephone interview. He said the Russians were “frankly stuck in the Donbass now without real success”. “And they have a new headache: the south, which from the point of view of the Ukrainian armed forces is a more important strategic objective.”