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Ukrainian officials are mulling evacuation of thousands of residents from a strategic front-line town just north of the Russian-backed separatist stronghold Donetsk, a grim prospect faced by Kiev’s pro-western leadership after a two-day flare up in the nearly three-year undeclared war knocked out electricity, water and heating amid freezing temperatures.
On Tuesday, Ukrainian officials reported that seven soldiers perished and 24 were wounded over two days as “Russian occupation forces carried out massive attacks” across front-line areas, with an intense focus on the steel industry town of Avdiyivka. The escalation in a conflict that has claimed nearly 10,000 lives, they say, is rooted in an offensive and shift by Russia’s proxy fighters from routine small-arm skirmishes back towards deadly Grad rockets, high-calibre mortars and tanks.
Donetsk-based militants, in turn, blame Kiev for the flare-up.
It commenced just hours after Donald Trump held his first phone call with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin since taking over as US president this month.
In contrast to previous US administration officials who have repeatedly condemned Russian aggression in Ukraine and Syria, Mr Trump has so far remained silent. This deepens concern in Kiev, given that he has in past comments expressed a fondness for Mr Putin and suggested a lifting of Russia sanctions.
In addition to geopolitical uncertainty over the Russia-Ukraine conflict, concern is also mounting over the fate of innocent civilians, starting with the freezing population of Avdiyivka.
The Ukrainian office for the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a tweet:
“Hostilities continue … people start to lose hope. People have no water, electricity & heating. We are working on providing much needed assistance.”
Meeting with security officials on Tuesday, Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko called upon the international community to condemn what he described as continued Russian aggression, while rhetorically asking how could “someone’s tongue again dare to talk about dropping sanctions?”
Speaking amid reports of continued shelling of Ukrainian front line positions in Avdiyivka, Mr Poroshenko did not immediately make clear if a decision to evacuate the city had been approved. While complaining that continued shelling prevents restoration of basic utilities, Ukrainian officials throughout Tuesday discussed partial or full evacuation.
Apart from logistical matters, evacuation poses two serious risks for Kiev.
With the city cleared of civilians, Russian-backed forces could be tempted to go on a full-fledged offensive — repeating the success of their 2015 winter seizure of Debaltseve, a strategic railway hub.
Even if Ukraine’s forces successfully repel an attack, evacuating the city will leave no workers for Avdiyivka’s coal coking factory. Though it stands largely idle this week with power disrupted, it is a major supplier of raw materials to a vast Ukrainian steel industry. One of Ukraine’s main engines of growth, the steel sector – like the country’s economy overall – has been making a gradual and fragile rebound following two years of deep recession.