KYIV (NYTIMES) – Even as Russian forces pummel towns and villages in Ukraine’s Donetsk province with deadly rocket attacks and airstrikes, military experts say the strikes are most likely only the prelude to a full-scale assault.
President Vladimir Putin’s forces are laying the groundwork for an onslaught, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a research group based in Washington, which said that on Wednesday (July 6), for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, it claimed no territorial gains.
Still, Russia’s attacks in Donetsk in recent days have caused heavy damage. At least seven civilians were killed in the past 24 hours, including a 17-year-old girl found under rubble, local authorities said on Thursday.
In Kramatorsk, which is Ukraine’s administrative and military centre in the province, a rocket struck a residential area in the centre of the city around midday, killing one person and wounding six others, officials there said.
The Institute for the Study of War said in its most recent assessment that while Russian forces may have “initiated an operational pause” in Donetsk, it did not mean “the complete cessation of active hostilities”.
Instead, the report said, Moscow’s troops “will likely confine themselves to relatively small-scale offensive actions as they attempt to set conditions for more significant offensive operations”.
Moscow is turning its attention to Donetsk province after completing its capture of Luhansk province, to its northeast, last week. After that victory, military experts said that Russia would rotate troops out and bring in fresh ones.
A report on Thursday by British military intelligence said that while heavy shelling continued on the front line in Donetsk, Russian forces had made few advances and were “likely reconstituting” their operations.
Since April, after its forces were routed from northern Ukraine, Russia has narrowed its focus to capturing the whole of the Donbas region, which comprises Luhansk and Donetsk provinces.
Russia’s strategy has been to pound its targets for weeks before launching a ground assault, a method that worked in Luhansk province.
The head of Donetsk’s military administration, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said on Thursday on the Telegram social messaging app that civilians died in the city of Siversk and in three other locations to the south.
“Two more people were injured,” he said, without giving details.
Later, Oleksandr Goncharenko, the mayor of Kramatorsk, said a Russian airstrike hit the city’s center.
“We are investigating the consequences,” he said. “Rescue services are working. Stay in the shelters, the danger has not passed.”