Ukrainian service members install national flag on Snake (Zmiinyi) Island

Russia taking ‘operational pause’ in Ukraine ahead of new assault, analysts say

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Foreign analysts say Russia may be temporarily easing its offensive in Ukraine as the Russian military attempts to reassemble its forces for a renewed assault.

On Wednesday, Russian forces made no claimed or assessed territorial gains in Ukraine “for the first time in 133 days of war,” according to the Institute for the Study of War. The think tank based in Washington suggested that Moscow may be taking an “operational pause,” but that it does not entail “the complete cessation of active hostilities.”

WATCH: Examining the state of war in Ukraine after Russia seizes the Luhansk region

“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 combat power needed to attempt those more ambitious undertakings,” the institute said.

A Thursday statement from Russia’s Defense Ministry seemed to confirm that assessment. It said Russian military units involved in combat in Ukraine had been given time to rest.

“The units that performed combat missions during the special military operation 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.

Shelling continued in Ukraine’s east, where at least nine civilians were killed and six wounded in 24 hours, Ukrainian officials said.
Ukraine’s presidential office said in its Thursday morning update that cities and villages in seven Ukrainian 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.

Ten 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. Russian President Vladimir 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 province constituting the Donbas, 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.

In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, a boarding school was hit, but no one was injured. The Kharkiv region, which lies along the border with Russia, is under daily shelling, and two civilians were killed there over the past 24 hours.

The Ukrainian military said Thursday that Russian forces also carried out shelling and helicopter strikes in the Sumy region in the northeast.

READ MORE: U.S. announces $820 million in Ukraine military aid, including missile systems

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 where the Ukrainian military said Thursday that a Ukrainian flag had been planted on a strategic island that Russian troops withdrew from last month.

Ukraine’s Operational Command South 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 the key port of Odesa. The command group also said the Ukrainian military had destroyed some 30 pieces of Russian military equipment, describing the discovery of “abandoned ammunition and vast ruins.”

Russian troops withdrew from the island on June 30 in what Russia’s Defense Ministry called “a goodwill gesture.” But the ministry said Thursday that a Russian Aerospace Forces aircraft had 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.

Ukraine also said that Russia fired two missiles targeting a Moldovan-flagged oil tanker in the Black Sea, setting it ablaze.

Ukraine’s southern military command said the strike hit the Millennial Spirit, which has over 500 tons of diesel fuel on board. Ukraine says one missile struck the ship, while the other went wide. Social media images showed smoke rising off the coast of Odesa on Thursday morning.

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. The ship’s tracking devices have been down since it was abandoned by its crew.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said it summoned the Turkish ambassador in Kyiv Thursday over what it described as the theft of Ukrainian grain by a Russian ship.

The Russian ship 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 about the “unacceptable situation.”

Turkey, with its Bosporus Strait, is a 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.

Jon Gambrell in Lviv, Ukraine, and Cara Anna in Kharkiv, Ukraine, contributed to this story.