War in Ukraine: Live Updates

Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

DRUZHKYVKA, Ukraine. Longstanding Ukrainian defense strongholds in the east have come under intense attack in recent days, according to the Ukrainian army and Western military analysts.

That Ukrainian soldiers still hold trenches and fortifications in two suburban towns, Avdiivka and Pisky, on the outskirts of Donetsk, is a testament to the value of their dug-in positions in the east. Ukraine’s strong defensive position slowed the advance of the Russian army to a minimum: only two large cities, Severodonetsk and Lysichansk, and several tens of kilometers of territory changed hands, despite the fact that thousands of soldiers were killed on both sides.

It was not clear exactly why the assaults on the fortifications intensified, and these assaults are an exception to the general decline in Russian attacks in the eastern region of Donbass, which has been the focus of the war for several months. Some military analysts believe the relative lull was partly the result of Russian forces diverting to the south to repel a Ukrainian counteroffensive.

The two cities, mostly deserted and destroyed, are hardly much to capture, but if they fall, it could make it easier for Russia to advance towards the three major cities in the Donetsk region that remain under Ukrainian control – Bakhmut, Kramatorsk and Slavyansk.

The Ukrainian army and paramilitary groups built fortifications in the two cities during eight years of low-key warfare following Russia’s 2014 military intervention in Ukraine to support the separatist region of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Now they are among the easternmost positions of Ukraine.

Passing through abandoned factories and mines, taking advantage of country house cellars, and using swamps as natural barriers, the defense lines have withstood countless assaults. Having failed to outflank Avdiivka, Russia launched direct tank attacks this week, according to the Washington Institute for the Study of War.

The Institute noted Russian propaganda videos suggesting that Russian troops had seized a position near the ventilation shaft of the Butiyka coal mine, which since 2015 has been the closest Ukrainian position to the city of Donetsk, several miles from what the separatists claim is their capital. .

The Ukrainian General Staff said the tank attacks did not push its soldiers away from Avdiivka, but noted that they were a partial success in possibly recognizing the loss of a strategically and politically important position.

“The enemy has not stopped trying to attack for several days in a row,” Ukrainian military governor of Avdiivka Vitaliy Barabash told Radio Liberty on Wednesday. “Artillery and aviation” bombs are hitting everywhere.

Credit…Alessandro Guerra/EPA, via Shutterstock

The Russian military also bombarded the city with rockets that spray combustible materials into the air and then set it on fire, creating a giant fireball. The Russian thermobaric missile system, nicknamed “The Heat Wave”, is one of the most destructive weapons in Russia’s arsenal.

“People live in terrible, inhuman conditions,” Barabash said. He said there were about 2,000 civilians left in Avdiivka out of an estimated 20,000 pre-invasion population. “The city is shelled about 20 times every day,” he said.

In general, in recent weeks, the Russian campaign in the Donbass has subsided after the appearance of American HIMARS missile systems on the battlefield, used to destroy ammunition depots in the rear, and the launch of a Ukrainian counter-offensive near the southern city of Kherson, according to Sergei Grabsky, a former colonel of the Ukrainian army and military commentator of the Ukrainian media. Russia diverted about 10,000 soldiers from the advance on Slavyansk to defend the south, he said.

“Ukrainian forces have created fairly effective defensive positions in the Donbas over the past few years,” he said. Grabsky said in a telephone interview. According to him, the Russians “are now frankly stuck in the Donbas 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 goal.”