KIEV, Ukraine — Insurgents bade tearful farewells Wednesday as they loaded their families onto Russia-bound buses and began hunkering down for what could be the next phase in Ukraine’s conflict: bloody urban warfare.
While the pro-Russian rebels in the east have lost much ground in recent weeks and were driven from their stronghold of Slovyansk, many have regrouped in Donetsk, an industrial city that had a population of 1 million before tens of thousands by some estimates fled in recent weeks for fear of a government siege. The rebels also hold the city of Luhansk.
Despite the government’s desire to minimize civilian casualties, Ukraine’s forces could find themselves dragged into grueling warfare inside the cities in their battle to hold the country together.
“To respond to this phase … we evidently must change tactics,” said Valeriy Chaly, deputy head of the presidential administration. He refrained from specifying how.
Insurgents in Donetsk appeared be bracing for a bitter fight as they shipped their relatives out of the city.
One fighter, who declined to give his name, told The Associated Press that not having his wife and young daughter with him would free him to concentrate on the battles ahead.
“It is easier for us this way. It is easier to fight. Your soul is not ripped into two, because when they’re here, you think about war and about your family — if they are OK or not,” he said. “When you know that they are safe, it is easier to go to fight.”
U.N. Security Council spokesman Andrei Lysenko said that in Luhansk, rebels lobbing artillery at government troops were taking up positions in residential and industrial zones.
The results of that tactic were evident to see earlier this month in Slovyansk, where apartment blocks used by the rebels were wrecked by return fire.
Taking the fight into the heart of rebel-held cities would involve a type of combat for which Ukrainian soldiers are not believed to be adequately prepared.
“It’s a very complicated strategic task — not only when it comes to tactics, also in terms of equipment. When rebels are putting missile launchers on school rooftops, what do you do?” said Orysia Lutsevych, a research fellow at Chatham House in London.
Matthew Clements, an analyst with security affairs consultancy HIS, said Ukraine may, instead of entering Donetsk and Luhansk, surround the cities, “cut the separatists off from supplies of fighters and equipment, and undertake gradual operations against the cities and suburbs in an effort to wear the separatists down.”
Disrupting supply lines is a particular priority for Kiev as the rebels have lately come into possession of advanced weapons, including tanks and multiple rocket launchers — hardware that Ukraine and the West say are being supplied by Russia. Russia denies the allegation.
A hail of rockets that Ukrainian officials said came from a Russian-made launcher killed at least 19 government servicemen last week.
In other developments:
— European Union leaders were expected to decide Wednesday night whether to toughen sanctions against Russia because of what they consider its destabilization of Ukraine. “We need to send a very clear message with clear actions,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said.
— The Pentagon said Russia is building up its forces along the Ukraine border again, with 12,000 troops massed there, reflecting a steady increase in recent weeks.