Why Bakhmut Still Matters — From Ukraine's Frontline, An Iconic Battle Is Back In Play
Yevhen Mezhevikin, a battle-hardened veteran with nine years of experience in the Ukraine war, sheds light on why the area around the war's longest battle still matters in the ongoing counteroffensive.
BAKHMUT — This past spring, the Battle of Bakhmut became one of those chapters of the War in Ukraine that prompted comparisons to Europe’s bloodiest conflicts of the past. Commentators cited World War I's battle of Verdun with its war of attrition and estimated 800,000 casualties, or the devastating urban warfare and aerial bombardments of World War II that leveled entire cities.
Lasting for a staggering 10 months, the battle of Bakhmut left the eastern Ukrainian city in ruins, reducing its apartments, shops, and schools to piles of rubble.
At the forefront of the Russian offensive in this sector was the Wagner Group private military company, under the leadership of Yevgeny Prigozhin. On May 20, the Wagner boss announced the capture of Bakhmut.
But while the Ukrainian army withdrew from the city, it also began to mount its long-announced counteroffensive — and started to nibble at Russia-occupied territories to the north and south of the beleaguered city.
Notably, the Ukrainians progressed on the southern flank, where several units managed to push the Russians away from the forest near Ivanivske, a town six kilometers southwest of Bakhmut. Additionally, the Ukrainian forces partially crossed the Siversky Donets-Donbas channel.
On Thursday, Ukrainian military officials reported a successful assault near Bakhmut against a Russian infantry group and capture of an ammunition depot.
A top commander in the area, named Yevhen Mezhevikin, is known by his callsign "Adam." An experienced tank commander, a colonel, and a decorated "Hero of Ukraine," Mezhevikin has been fighting against Russian forces since 2014, and has been present at some of the hottest conflict zones during the full-scale invasion.
In an interview with the Kyiv-based news site Ukrainska Pravda, Mezhevikin says that the battle of Bakhmut is indeed far from over, and explains its continuing importance to the overall objectives of the war.
For Yevhen Mezhevikin’s units near Bakhmut, the Ukrainian counteroffensive did not start in June, when Kyiv's offensive actions started making headlines, but all the way back in March.
“At the time, the [Ukrainian] units south of Bakhmut were giving ground, and there was a real threat of the city being encircled,” Mezhevikin says. “The enemy almost reached the Kostyantynivka-Bakhmut road (the main supply route to the besieged city), and I was appointed the head of the units tasked with stopping the [Russian] advance, inflicting damage and restoring the lost positions.”
All logistics into the city passed through our tactical unit.
His units were successful, not allowing the Wagner forces to close the city's encirclement and maintain supply lines to its defenders, and continued counteroffensive actions.
“We secured the ‘highway of life’ to Bakhmut,” the 41-year-old colonel says. “All logistics into the city passed through our tactical unit, through Ivanivske. The task was not only to secure this road, but also to reach additional ones.”
Mezhevikin mentions that he commands multiple battalions, listing the 3rd assault, 80th, 28th, 24th, 22nd, and 5th, and some separate battalions. While he refrains from disclosing the troop numbers, he confirms that his grouping includes mechanized, assault, artillery, and airborne units.
Ukrainian Soldiers preparing to leave for a mission in the newly liberated village of Storozheve, Ukraine, June 20, 2023.
In May, Telegram channels associated with Ukraine's 3rd assault brigade, led by Andrey Biletsky, claimed to have forced the Russian 72nd Motorized Rifle Brigade to retreat near Bakhmut. But Mezhevikin insists that the conquests then surpassed what was publicly reported at the time.
“The 3rd Brigade simply voiced what all units were doing in cooperation,” says Mezhevikin. “When the 3rd started the offensive, it was not yet part of the “Adam” tactical group but of "Azov", under Biletsky's command. That's why he announced these actions in the media and telegram channels. But it was the 5th and 80th that launched the offensive and saw further success. The 80th went deep into enemy territory, which is a more dangerous direction.”
Mezhevikin remains discreet about the current actions of the units under his command, buts admits that in some places, the offensive actions slowed down in June.
“There are measures that must be carried out after the assaults - building fortifications, de-mining the recaptured area, creation of logistical routes. All of this requires time,” Mezhevikin says. “Moreover, after our offensive, the enemy brought reserves here — a battalion of paratroopers, a battalion of the tank regiment of the 4th brigade, all of which are here to replace the Wagner troops.”
After its capture of Bakhmut, Wagner proclaimed that it would withdraw its troops from the city and allow it to be occupied by the regular Russian army. This came as feuds between Wagner chief Prigozhin and the Russian military high command were heating up. According to Mezhevikin, the mercenary company did indeed withdraw its forces, as previously stated.
“Right now, there are no "Wagnerites" among the prisoners, and interrogations of other prisoners show that they are not here,” he says.
He adds that Wagner troops and other Russian forces suffered major casualties in Bakhmut, which helps to justify the territorial defeat. “Every battle, even if it does not end with us raising a flag over a certain position, height, or settlement, achieves its goal,” the commander says. “We withdrew from the position but inflicted maximum casualties on the enemy. This type of warfare is quite efficient, so all the battles that occurred here can be considered victories.”
Commander Yevhen Mezhevikin of the Ukrainian army, who has been fighting Russia since 2014.
Arms and politics
With the Ukrainian counteroffensive underway in several directions across Ukraine, “Adam” calls for a level-headed approach. “If you strive for maximum gains in an offensive, you must understand that you can lose a significant number of personnel and equipment. If you aim for minimum losses, you'll preserve more personnel, but achieve minimal results.”
He believes a comprehensive approach is needed in the region. “If we are to advance at this moment, we should do so by employing a flexible application of forces and resources,” he continues. “The enemy has been preparing for our offensive for a long time. There are sections where we need to traverse on foot, areas where we must utilize our vehicles, then continue on foot and halt for logistical support. All of it is heavily mined. There cannot be a "just keep moving forward" mentality here. You can achieve maximum gains but with significant losses.”
War has become a way of life.
Mezhevikin believes that if the Ukrainian army advances prudently and combines arms and politics, it will ultimately expel the Russian forces from occupied territories and reach its 1991 borders.
“We will not reach them immediately. But gradually, yes” he says. “If we continue to be successful and the enemy suffers losses, this will force him to make political decisions and negotiate at the end of the war.”
But while the war veteran wants this to occur, he remains unsure of what an end to the conflict would mean for him personally.
“I’ve been fighting for more than nine years, I treat war like ordinary life," he says. "To go back to civilian life and not fight... I don't know how I would behave there, or what life would be like. War has become a way of life.”
Of course, however, he hopes for the war to end. "It has already taken away so many of my friends.”
- Inside The Battle For Bakhmut, A Singular Prize In Ukraine's New War Of Attrition ›
- Blood Of Bakhmut: Why Both Sides Are Ready To Die For A Deserted City In Donbas ›
- Bakhmut Diary: Death And Life From Inside Ukraine's 243rd Battalion ›
- What Happens If Ukraine Loses? That's The Real "Cost Question" For The West - Worldcrunch ›