By Simon Lewis
KRAMATORSK/SLOVIANSK, Ukraine (Reuters) – In the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk, mechanic-turned-soldier Artchk helps shore up defences against imminent Russian attack while, nearby, farmer Vasyl Avramenko laments the loss of crops supplanted by mines.
Shells are raining down steadily on Kramatorsk and its twin, Sloviansk, and they are poised to become the next frontline in Moscow’s offensive in the heavily industrialised Donbas.
Their defenders are outgunned, but Ukrainians have repelled Russian-backed forces here before, the cities having been seized by pro-Kremlin separatists in April 2014 and recaptured three months later.
“Of course we’re already prepared. We’re ready,” Artchk, identifying himself by his nom-de-guerre, told Reuters.
“It’s their (Russians’) fantasy to occupy these cities, but they don’t expect the level of resistance – it’s not just the Ukrainian government, it’s the people who refuse to accept them.”
Their streets eerily deserted as excavators dig trenches on their outskirts to prevent the advance of Russian tanks, the cities are of huge symbolic importance to Moscow, which sees them as the cradle of the separatist insurgency it supported in 2014.
Once hubs of the Soviet machine-building industry, they are located in the Donetsk region, and fully in Russia’s crosshairs after the Kremlin’s forces claimed control of the neighbouring Luhansk region – also part of Donbas – last weekend.
On Tuesday, as incoming shells sounded in the distance, Donetsk regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko told reporters he was making preparations to evacuate both cities.
Military analysts say Ukraine could fare better defending its new front line after its forces fell back from a pocket they had defended for months in which Russia was able to pound them with artillery from three sides.
Ukrainian soldiers on a break from front lines situated just 10 km (six miles) from Sloviansk said they were vastly outgunned, and all urged Western countries to deliver them more high-tech heavy weapons and ammunition.
“We shoot one time and then they respond with cluster bombs,” said one artilleryman who declined to give his name.
“The Russians have so many shells and they just keep hitting that area. They don’t keep count of what they are firing on.”
In 2014, Russian proxies fell back from Sloviansk and Kramatorsk to consolidate territory further to the east and south in a conflict that killed more than 14,000 and smouldered on.
Russia, which had long seen ex-Soviet Ukraine as a buffer against NATO, annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea the same year and backed the separatist insurgency after a Moscow-backed president fled in the face of pro-Western mass protests.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has made capturing the Donbas on behalf of separatists a main war aim after an abortive assault on Kyiv beginning on Feb. 24.
‘A MORE PRO-EUROPEAN CITY’
Kramatorsk and Sloviansk could be the last major obstacles to achieving that goal, and many of the civilians who have decided to stay in the cities are thought to be Russian sympathisers.
Veteran Affairs Minister Yulia Laputina, who led the task force that recaptured Sloviansk in 2014, played down that suspicion and said it was barely recognisable from eight years ago.
“It’s another city. It’s a more pro-European city,” she said.
Donetsk Governor Kyrylenko said some pro-Russians had clearly remained.
“It’s not only that they are disloyal, but they are trying to help direct missile strikes. Anyone who has that idea in their mind and takes that action will be punished.” he added.
Ukraine’s SBU security service arrested a man in Kramatorsk on Monday suspected of providing Russian artillery with the coordinates of Ukrainian military positions, a spokesperon said.
Checks on cars entering the cities have intensified and officials and soldiers there declined to discuss plans for defending the region.
At Sloviansk’s nearly deserted main market, farmer Avramenko, 53, said he was unable to farm much of his six acres on its outskirts because it has been mined to fend off a Russian offensive.
He predicted residents would fight the invading forces in the streets, and said he would rejoin territorial defense forces as he had in 2014 if needed.
“It is obviously bad that back then in 2014 there was no solution reached. We have to chase them away now and end all this,” he said, gathering up garlic he had been unable to sell .
The artillery barrage this time was much more intense, frequently forcing him to hide in his basement, he said.
Hours later, the market was ablaze after it was hit by shelling that killed at least two people and wounded seven.
(Editing by Tom Balmforth and John Stonestreet)