KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Foreign analysts say Russia may be temporarily easing its offensive in eastern Ukraine as the Russian military attempts to reassemble its forces for a significant — and what it hopes could prove decisive — new assault on its neighbor. Russian President Vladimir Putin warned menacingly on Thursday that his forces “haven’t even started” to fight.
Russian forces made no claimed or assessed territorial gains in Ukraine on Wednesday “for the first time in 133 days of war,” according to the Institute for the Study of War. The Washington-based think tank suggested Moscow may be taking an “operational pause,” but said that does not entail “the complete cessation of active hostilities.”
“Russian forces will likely confine themselves to relatively small-scale offensive actions as they attempt to set conditions for more significant offensive operations” and rebuild the necessary combat power, the institute said.
Russia’s Defense Ministry seemed to confirm that assessment, saying in a statement Thursday that Russian soldiers had been given time to rest.
“The units that performed combat missions … are taking measures to recover their combat capabilities. The servicemen are given the opportunity to rest, receive letters and parcels from home,” read the statement, quoted by Russian state news agency Tass.
Putin warned Kyiv it should quickly accept Moscow’s terms to end the fighting or brace for the worst.
“Everybody should know that largely speaking, we haven’t even yet started anything in earnest,” he said in a menacing note.
Shelling continued in Ukraine’s east, where at least nine civilians were killed and six wounded in the past 24 hours, Ukrainian officials said early Thursday.
Ukraine’s presidential office said in its morning update that cities and villages in seven of the country’s regions were shelled in the past day. Most of the civilian deaths occurred in Donetsk province, where fighting is ongoing. Seven civilians were killed there, including a child, the presidential office said.
Later Thursday, a missile hit a residential area in the Donetsk city of Kramatorsk, killing one civilian and injuring at least six, officials said.
Volodymyr, 66, a resident who declined to provide his full name, sat in his overturned apartment, covered in blood.
“I was just sitting and drinking tea, and then there was an explosion,” he told the Associated Press. “You can see the result of it.”
Asked if he felt safe staying in his apartment building block, he responded: “Is it safe right now anywhere in Ukraine? It all just happened in one moment, and that was it.”
Three people were killed and at least two wounded in what appeared to be a rocket attack on a residential neighborhood of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.
Earlier in the day, a boarding school was hit in Kharkiv but no one was injured. In separate attacks, the Ukrainian regional administration reported that three people across the Kharkiv region had been wounded by shelling.
The Kharkiv region, which lies along the border with Russia, is under daily shelling, and at least five civilians were killed there since Wednesday.
In all, 10 cities and villages came under shelling in Donetsk, and 35 buildings were destroyed, including a school, a vocational college and a hospital, officials said.
Donetsk is part of the Donbas, a mostly Russian-speaking industrial region where Ukraine’s most experienced soldiers are concentrated. Pro-Russian separatists have fought Ukrainian forces and controlled much of the Donbas for eight years. Putin recognized the independence of two self-proclaimed republics there just before Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.
Putin on Monday claimed victory in Luhansk, the other Donbas province, after Ukrainian forces withdrew from the last city they controlled there. The governor of Luhansk, Serhiy Haidai, denied Wednesday that the Russians had completely captured the province.
The Ukrainian military said Thursday that Russian forces also carried out shelling and helicopter strikes in the Sumy region in the northeast.
Even as the fighting continued, the British Defense Ministry said it thinks Russia’s military is “reconstituting” its forces. A ministry intelligence assessment issued Thursday said the heavy shelling along the front line in Donetsk is likely intended to secure previous Russian gains.
Further hostilities were reported in the Black Sea. The Ukrainian military said Thursday a national flag again stood on a strategic island that Russian troops withdrew from last month.
Ukraine’s southern military command said in a statement that Ukrainian military units had cleared Snake Island, an outpost off Ukraine’s southwestern coast vital for guaranteeing sea lanes out of Odesa, Ukraine’s biggest port.
The command group said that in addition to planting Ukraine’s flag on the island, the Ukrainian military also destroyed left-behind Russian military equipment.
The Russian Defense Ministry said Thursday that a Russian military aircraft launched a missile strike on the island as Ukrainian forces attempted to plant the flag. “As a result, some of the Ukrainian military personnel were destroyed, the rest fled,” the ministry said. The claim could not be immediately verified.
When Russian troops withdrew from Snake Island on June 30, the Defense Ministry described it as a “a goodwill gesture” to ensure Ukrainian grain and other exports could resume.
Ukraine said Russia also fired two missiles at a Moldovan-flagged oil tanker in the Black Sea, setting it ablaze.
Ukrainian officials said one hit the Millennial Spirit, which carried over 500 tons of diesel fuel, while the other went wide.
The ship has been without a crew, drifting at sea since the start of the war in February. Russia did not immediately acknowledge the strike on the vessel.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said it summoned the Turkish ambassador in Kyiv on Thursday over what it described as the theft of Ukrainian grain by a Russian ship.
The Zhibek Zholy was allowed to leave Turkey’s Black Sea coast after Turkish authorities briefly detained it at Ukraine’s request. Ukraine summoned the ambassador to complain.
Turkey, with its Bosporus Strait, is the key transit route for shipping out of the Black Sea. Ukraine has sought to pressure Ankara to stop Russian shipments of its grain, a vital source of revenue.
Francesca Ebel in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, Jon Gambrell in Lviv, Ukraine, and Cara Anna in Kharkiv, Ukraine, contributed to this story.
Follow AP’s coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine