Inside The Battle For Bakhmut, A Singular Prize In Ukraine's New War Of Attrition
Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine has been the site of some of the fiercest and bloodiest battles since Russia's invasion. As the human toll mounts, Ukraine must decide between symbolism and strategy in a fight against waves of untrained Russian civilian troops.
“Don’t ask me anything about how to fight," says Viktor, 52, lieutenant of the 66th Mechanized Brigade of the Kyiv Army, by way of introduction. "The war against civilians cannot be explained.”
Viktor is standing in front of the tank that brought him back alive, after his latest rotation in Bakhmut, the strategically important city in eastern Ukraine that has been at the center of intense fighting. By "civilians" he is actually referring to the enemy troops, who he says are largely untrained conscripts that Russia has thrown into the battle.
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Deployed in the Donetsk region since the start of the war, the Ukrainian soldiers of the 66th Brigade lost their commander, Oleh Dehtiarov, in battle last summer. Taking an active part in Ukraine's counteroffensive in September, during which it regained large parts of occupied territory, was thus driven by both national duty and personal remembrance.
We are speaking at an undisclosed military base, near the city of Lyman in eastern Ukraine, which was occupied by the Russians for months before they helped liberate it. Today the unit assists infantry in the battles of Avdiivka and Bakhmut.
Viktor calls it "the bird hunt”: if the Russians try to break through the positions, the artillery units receive a command, and the vehicles advance, striking the enemy army.
Even if Viktor says the so-called "war against civilians" cannot be explained, it may be that he's remembering the first commandment of those who fight: to force oneself not to be afraid, and when fear appears through the cracks, do your best to hide it.
On the camps of the military base, the snow falls along with the temperatures. Some soldiers chop wood, others move cots for the reservists who are coming to take the place of those who did not make it. Someone takes care of the vehicles' maintenance, others cook.
Fear of dying underground
Everything is always done in pairs or groups, as if they do not want to be alone, because together it is easier not to think about what was left behind, about those who left the base in uniform, alive, and returned inside the black plastic of a body bag.
The war there has been an attrition of men, vehicles and civilian population, but also a war of information.
The worst thing about the old war, he says, is the fear of dying underground, while you're hiding in your trenched-in tank that is half offensive weapon, and half living den. When the first shot comes, you realize they’ve seen you, they’ve found you, they’re aiming at you, and if there’s not enough time to move the vehicles and run away, you die like that, while hiding in a trench dug in the mud and snow.
Ukrainian combat medic leading a soldier out after he witnessed the death of his commander on the operating table
Wagner Group stakes
After months of unsuccessful attacks, Russian forces began to encircle Bakhmut a month ago. The Wagner Group led an advance toward the highway entering the city from the northeast.
For weeks now, the war there has been an attrition of men, vehicles and civilian population but also a war of information and lies. Attacks continue. The Russians say they have taken control of the settlements southwest of the city, and the spokesman for the Ukrainian Armed Forces for the Eastern Front denies the taking of Krasna Hora, four kilometers from Bakhmut.
Yevgeny Prighozin, the founder and financier of the Wagner Group that has been pushing toward Bakhmut, had taken capture of the town as a certainty.
In the face of Ukrainian resistance, Prighozin has been forced to deny achievements taken for granted and say that things are not going at all as planned: recently declaring that “Bakhmut will not fall tomorrow, and we will not celebrate in the near future.” It means that the Ukrainian resistance is more tenacious than expected.
Viktor doesn't call the enemy “soldiers.” He describes Russian troops “people thrown into the bloodbath like cattle,” a few professional soldiers, mostly civilians forced to fight, and then — case in point — “Wagner's orcs.”
Fire In Bakhmut After Russian Shelling
Cover Images / ZUMA
Prighozin desperately wants to proclaim victory here. He visits front lines in uniform, slings weapons, visits soldiers in trenches and military bases, hugs the wounded and rewards fighters. It is always Prigozhin who quickly finds replacements when too many recruits are lost in battle.
That is, recruits to be sent to fight, no matter whether they are used to life in the trenches, trained, or educated in the rules of war or not. Prigozhin is crediting himself with winning the main battles and criticizing those in the Defense Ministry who got the calculations wrong.
Losing the city would be a heavy blow to the morale of Kyiv’s troops.
As Dara Messicot, a political researcher specializing in defense issues in Russia for the Rand Corporation, points out, “Prigozhin has severely criticized Russian generals, and suggested that the Defense Ministry's senior leadership is out of touch. He is basically putting himself in the position of someone who wants to become the most important figure leading this war.”
Volodimir Zelensky Visiting Frontline Soldiers in Bakhmut
More symbolic than strategic
On one side are the Russians who need a victory, and who are also playing a crucial game on this battle over the leadership of the armed forces. On the other side are the Ukrainians who have lost hundreds of soldiers a day in Bakhmut in the bloodiest stages of the battle and are trying to wear down Russian forces at the price of house-to-house advances.
Assaults that come at great human cost but serve Kyiv’s purpose of not giving in and stalling until new weapons arrive from the allies. The dilemma, just as it was months ago in Severonestk, is how long it is possible to hold out at this human cost or how much more worthwhile it is to save fighters’ lives. Losing it, commanders say, would not be a serious defeat militarily at this point, but it would be a heavy blow to the morale of Kyiv’s troops and risk reinvigorating the Russian push after months of defeats.
At Severodonetsk, the Ukrainians decided to retreat and safeguard lives; today, however, Bakhmut, the fortress, though attacked from all sides, does not fall.
Russian troops are dying by the thousands on the Eastern Front, and the numbers will be difficult to clarify. The British Defense Ministry has stressed the “limited operational value” of taking Bakhmut.
Even should the city fall, its capture would not be decisive for any further Russian push into the Donbass. The battle is thus now more symbolic than strategic.
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