Kyiv - The Ukrainian military rebuffed Russian advances in Donetsk over the weekend, as the bloody battle for control in the eastern Donbas region grinds on. At least eight settlements in the eastern part of Donetsk came under fire Saturday through Sunday. Most of the settlements straddle a pocket of territory in the highway that leads west from Luhansk region towards the industrial cities of Donetsk, according to the Ukrainian military.

“Ukrainian soldiers competently repelled another combat reconnaissance attempt near Berestove and Bilohorivka,” the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said, adding that Russian forces were “firmly repulsed, suffered losses and withdrew.” While Russian forces fire at Ukrainian positions in Donetsk in preparation for the next stage of full-scale fighting in the war, the country’s defense ministry in Moscow on Saturday ordered commanders to take action to prevent Ukrainian strikes on Russian-held territory.

“(Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu) gave the necessary instructions to further increase the actions of groups in all operational areas in order to exclude the possibility of the Kyiv regime to launch massive rocket and artillery strikes on civilian infrastructure and residents of settlements in Donbas and other regions,” the ministry said in a statement. Shoigu visited Russian forces involved in what the ministry has long described as the “special military operation in Ukraine,” the statement added.

The order comes in response to a sharp rise in Ukrainian attacks far behind the front lines using recently acquired western howitzers and artillery.

After Russian forces captured the last city in Luhansk region still in Ukrainian hands -- Lysychansk -- they have stepped up the bombardment of towns and cities in the neighboring Donetsk region.

Russia struggles to gain ground in Donetsk

The Russian military has kept up a persistent barrage of artillery and missile strikes across the region for several weeks. The Kremlin says the goal of what it calls the “special military operation” is to take control of both Luhansk and Donetsk. About 45% of Donetsk -- a region of heavy industry interspersed with farmland -- is still held by the Ukrainians.

But they are under pressure from three directions -- east, north and south. Russian forces are also firing at Ukrainian positions south of the town of Bakhmut, according to the General Staff, including missile and air strikes, as well as artillery.

Three missiles hit the Toretsk community but there was no information about casualties, according to Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of Donetsk region military administration. In the city of Kostiantynivka, the Russians had shelled the medical college, Kyrylenko added. He also urged civilians in the area to evacuate.

For their part, the Russian armed forces have claimed “high-precision attacks” that “resulted in the elimination of 115th Mechanised Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) that had operated towards Siversk.”