SLOVIANSK, Ukraine (AP) — 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 hotly contested Donetsk region.

As heavy ground fighting continues on the front line just miles east, southeast and north of Sloviansk, members of the Dnipro-1 Regiment are digging in after a week of relative calm. The last Russian attack on the city occurred on July 30.

While the pause provided the remaining residents of Sloviansk with respite after regular shelling between April and July, some members of the unit say it could be a prelude to new attacks.

“I think there will be no calm for a long time. Eventually, there will be an assault,” Col. Yurii Bereza, head of the national guard volunteer regiment, told The Associated Press on Friday, adding that he expected the area to “warm up” in the coming days.

Sloviansk is considered a strategic target in Moscow’s ambitions to seize the entire Donetsk regiona mostly Russian-speaking area in eastern Ukraine where Russian forces and pro-Moscow separatists control about 60% of the territory.

Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk province, which Russia has almost completely captured since Ukrainian forces withdrew in early July from the remaining towns under their control, together form the Donbas industrial region. Separatists have claimed the region as two independent republics since 2014, with Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledging their sovereignty before sending troops to Ukraine.

Taking Sloviansk would bring more of the region under Russian control, but it would also be a symbolic victory for Moscow. The city was the first to be seized by separatists during an outbreak of hostilities between Russia and Ukraine in 2014, though it later returned to Ukrainian control.

In addition, the Russian military would like to take control of nearby water treatment facilities to serve Russian-occupied cities like Donetsk to the southeast and Mariupol to the southsergeant Major Artur Shevtsov of the Dnipro-1 Regiment said.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said in an assessment Friday that Russian forces had increasingly transferred personnel and equipment from Donbas to southern Ukraine to push back a Ukrainian counteroffensive around from the occupied port city of Kherson.

Those 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 after recent rainy weather in the region, and not the abandonment of Sloviansk as a target, was responsible for the lull in Russian artillery attacks.

“In two or three days, when it dries up, they will proceed,” he said.

Only about 20,000 residents remain in Sloviansk, down from more than 100,000 before Russia’s invasion. The city has been without gas and water for months, and residents can only manually pump drinking water from public wells.

From a position in the outskirts of the citysoldiers of the Dnipro-1 Regiment expanded a network of trenches and dug bunkers against mortar and phosphorous bomb attacks.

At the outpost, Sgt. Maj. Shevtsov said the supply of heavy weapons from Ukraine’s Western allies, including US-supplied multiple rocket launchers, has helped keep some Donbas cities such as Sloviansk relatively safe since their delivery in June.

But such weapons have likely only bought time for Ukrainian forces, he said, adding that the lack of attacks in the past week “concerns me.” In his experience, a pause means the Russians are preparing to attack.

Another officer, Cmdr. Ihor Krylchatenko said that he suspected that the silence could be broken in a few days.

“We were warned there could be an assault on August 7 or 8,” he said. “We’ll see, but we’re ready.”


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