Russian forces in eastern Ukraine are regrouping, with a new offensive expected, but they continue to rain death and destruction on cities and towns.
BAKHMUT, Ukraine — Over one town, an arc of fireballs burst and drifted down like fireworks, setting gardens and homes ablaze. In another, Russian missiles slammed into a five-story apartment block, shearing off a side of the building and killing at least 30 people.
Officially, Russia’s military has paused its drive to seize Ukrainian territory, but in recent days, it has stepped up its haphazard attacks on civilian areas, a constant reminder that it can inflict casualties and destruction at will as it tries to wear down the willingness to resist.
In one town after another across three fronts in eastern Ukraine, a hail of seemingly random Russian strikes, delivered by warplanes, artillery and missiles, has killed, maimed and terrified residents and Ukrainian soldiers alike.
Russian forces are using the lull in their ground offensive to regroup and resupply, in line with President Vladimir V. Putin’s order last week that some troops rest after the capture of Luhansk Province, military analysts said on Monday. Beyond the front lines, the destruction and casualties continue as residents are bracing for a renewed, all-out assault.
In the town of Chasiv Yar, in eastern Ukraine, emergency crews were still finding bodies on Monday from a single attack over the weekend. A missile strike hit an apartment complex late Saturday, and the death toll has risen to 31, the Ukrainian State Emergency Service said. Some of the dead were members of the military.
Ukrainian officials said Monday that in the previous 24 hours, Russian strikes had killed at least eight civilians. In eastern Donetsk Province, which includes Chasiv Yar, at least 10 cities and towns were hit, and two people killed, bringing the civilian death toll in the province to nearly 600 since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, according to the region’s military governor, Pavlo Kyrylenko.
About nine miles from Chasiv Yar, in the city of Bakhmut, Russian troops fired incendiary munitions, limited by international law and designed to set fires or cause burn injuries, at a neighborhood Sunday, officials said.
“It’s the first time we had this on the civilian part of Bakhmut,” said Katerina, 31, a social worker. Her neighbor, Olesia, 17, said that after days of increased shelling, residents were used to the sound of the rocket launchers commonly known as Grads.
“But this sounded different,” she said. “It was a light sound, like shoosh, shoosh, shoosh.”
Within minutes, smoke was rising from at least eight fires around the neighborhood. Neighbors in shorts and sandals frantically pulled garden hoses toward a burning house. They hurled buckets of water at the flames as the rafters and tiled roof of a house cracked and popped.
Better Understand the Russia-Ukraine War
- History: Here’s what to know about Russia and Ukraine’s relationship and the causes of the conflict.
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Off-duty police officers and soldiers arrived in small cars to help. They carried buckets of water, their arms and hands blackened from fighting another blaze down the street.
Many homeowners had left town weeks ago, and many of those who remained in the face of Russia’s advance did so because they had little choice. Some are elderly, or caring for older relatives. Some did not have the resources to flee, and some support the Russians bearing down with attacks. Some fear the prospect of going west and joining the millions of other people forced from their homes.
Those who remain live with a constant threat of death from the sky. On Sunday, a retired miner, Viktor, 67, watched one fire from his house across the street.
“I worked 20 years down the mines and this is what I get,” he said, then turned away, weeping. Like many others, he was reluctant to give his surname for fear of retribution if the town changes hands.
Some residents retrieved canisters and capsules, identified by soldiers as pieces of incendiary explosives, from their gardens and streets. A soldier warned them to cover them with sand rather than water. “We get them on the front line all the time,” he said, declining to give his name because of military protocol. “Now they got themhere.”
Bakhmut, an important military stronghold for Ukraine, is less than 10 miles from Russian lines and a likely target for its planned advance through the eastern Donbas region, which encompasses Donetsk, now mostly under Russian control, and Luhansk.
Russia launched attacks in the northeast and south, as well.
Hours before dawn on Monday, a missile damaged a school building in the city of Kharkiv, a regional official, Oleh Sinehubov, said on Telegram. He said that no one was hurt there, and that a six-story apartment building was hit 20 minutes later. Emergency workers rescued an 86-year-old woman from the rubble. “Only civilian structures — a shopping center and houses of peaceful Kharkiv residents — came under the fire of the Russians,” he said.
Six people were killed and 31 more were wounded in northeastern Ukraine, local officials said.
Explosions also caused damage early Monday in the southern city of Mykolaiv, Ukrainian officials said. At least one person was wounded in a missile strike, the head of the regional military administration, Vitaliy Kim, said on Telegram.
On at least one thing, President Volodymyr Zelensky and his Russian counterpart and nemesis, Vladimir V. Putin, were in agreement: Though its forces are severely depleted, Russia’s assault on Ukraine is nowhere near finished.
Ukrainians and Western analysts believe that before long, Mr. Putin will order a new offensive to conquer the remaining Ukrainian-held territory in Donetsk, anchored by the cities of Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and Bakhmut — if not more.
Last week, Mr. Putin told Russian lawmakers, “We haven’t started anything yet.”
Mr. Zelensky, citing the slew of recent strikes, mocked the idea that Russia’s attacks had abated.
“Many talked about the alleged ‘operational pause’ in the actions of the occupiers,” he said in an overnight speech. “Thirty-four airstrikes by Russian aircraft over the past day is an answer to all those who came up with this ‘pause.’”
But the recent attacks appeared to differ, military analysts said, from Russia’s earlier tactics in the war, such as its failed blitzkrieg on Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and then its concentrated, weekslong bombardment of major regional cities.
The latest attacks hit a variety of targets, primarily in Donetsk, without a corresponding attempt to advance inch by inch.]
And they came as Russia announced that its forces were taking a “theater-wide operational pause,” with units “regrouping to rest, refit and reconstitute” — though it made clear that its definition of a pause did “not mean a complete cessation of hostilities,” but rather that attacks were “more preparative” for later offensives.
From the outset of the war, Russia has battered civilian targets, but Ukrainian and Western officials say such attacks have grown more indiscriminate, in part because Moscow is running low on modern, precision munitions and relying more on older, less accurate ones.
On Monday, Mr. Putin signed a decree that offered a simplified path to Russian citizenship for all Ukrainians, indicating Russia might seek to establish permanent control of the Ukrainian territories currently occupied by Moscow’s forces.
But despite its president’s bravado, Russia is desperate for more soldiers, relying on impoverished ethnic groups, Ukrainians from the separatist territories, mercenaries and militarized National Guard units. The logistics of finding more troops, replacing damaged gear and getting them into position made an “operational pause” necessary, analysts say.
Russia and Ukraine keep the numbers of battlefield dead and wounded careful secrets, but the British military recently estimated the number of dead Russians at 25,000, with tens of thousands more wounded or simply exhausted after almost five months of war. That is far more than the roughly 15,000 the Soviet Union lost in its nine-year war in Afghanistan.
Even by conservative estimates, tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers have died.
Ukraine also faces a manpower problem, but its officials have pleaded loudest for help with their primary disadvantage: heavy weapons and ammunition to counter Russia’s strategy of long-range strikes on homes, malls and transit centers, as well as troops.
In Chasiv Yar, where the apartment building was hit, one young man was trapped for more than 20 hours, pinned under the rubble. On Sunday evening, he was pulled out by rescuers, who quickly covered him a blue blanket and gently placed him on a stretcher.
He was one of nine people saved from the complex so far, officials said. It was unclear whether anyone else was alive.
“My grandmother was here,” one neighbor said, before pointing into the pile of rubble.
“That’s her bed,” he said. “I hope they will find her, and I can give her a funeral.”
Carlotta Gall and Kamila Hrabchuk reported from Bakhmut, Ukraine, and Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London. Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting from Tbilisi, Georgia, and Alan Yuhas from New York.