Ukrainian forces prepare for Russian assault in Donbass

Ukrainian forces are entrenched around the village of Krasnopillia in the Donbass as they prepare for a planned Russian offensive to take the eastern region.

“We know the Russians are getting stronger and preparing to attack,” a senior Ukrainian officer on the ground told AFP, echoing other sources who have warned of a Russian assault in Donbass that could start at any time.

The village is located on the road between the Ukrainian cities of Slaviansk and Kramatorsk, and Izyum, in the northwest, recently captured by the Russian army.

On Tuesday, AFP journalists in Krasnopillia heard artillery explosions but not the sound of automatic weapons fire, a sign of ground combat.

While the front was stable for the moment, Russian helicopters increased their flights over the area, said the Ukrainian officer, often a harbinger of a large-scale operation.

“We’re ready…we’ve got some surprises planned for them along the way,” the officer said.

In the face of increasing pressure, the opposing forces seemed confident. “We are waiting for them! said a lieutenant tasked with reinforcing positions along the road, giving a thumbs up.

Artillery and armored vehicles are entrenched along the sides of the road. The adjacent forest is dotted with other fortified positions and camouflaged equipment.

As winter draws to a close and the sodden terrain makes movement across the fields difficult, the road between Izyum and Sloviansk is expected to play an important strategic role in the expected offensive in Donbass.

Since Russia announced its intention to focus on the “liberation” of Donbass, residents of the traditional mining region in eastern Ukraine have lived in fear of aggression.

Ukrainian forces have been deployed in the region since 2014 along a front line between Donetsk in the south and Lugansk in the east, the capitals of the two dissident pro-Russian “republics” of the same name.

Westbound train

Ukrainian leaders from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the Donbass have asked civilians to evacuate to the west.

On Tuesday morning, a three-kilometre-long line of cars waited to pass a checkpoint to enter Kramatorsk and its sister city of Slaviansk before heading off again.

Evacuations have so far been mainly by train, with between 2,000 and 3,000 people leaving Kramatorsk station each day.

But damage to the train line overnight led to the suspension of service on Tuesday morning, according to the Ukrainian train operator.

At the end of the afternoon, a train finally left the station, where hundreds of people were patiently waiting for their transport.

The few who remain in Kramatorsk live under a night curfew and to the rhythm of anti-aircraft sirens. Fuel is hard to come by and most shops are closed.

“The atmosphere has become tense, everyone is nervous. It’s time to leave now,” a station volunteer told AFP.

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