The eastern city of Bakhmut – where soldiers suffer bitter cold and lack of supplies – is now the war’s most violent front
https://www.theguardian.com-by Peter Beaumont in Bakhmut area
When Nazar and his fellow soldiers came to the village outside the key city of Bakhmut that they had been ordered to attack, they thought they would be there for a single day. They arrived without sleeping bags or extra rations, as snow lay on the ground.
Instead of the 15 Russians they had been warned to expect, they encountered 50 of them, dug into the tree line, triggering a fight that lasted several days. “In places we were only 100 metres apart,” recalls Nazar. “We were on one low hill and they were on another. Sometimes, we could even hear their laughter.”
For the 19-year-old machine gunner in the 24th mechanised brigade, it was his first fight since finishing his training. For many of the other soldiers in this battalion, however, it was only the latest in a series of battles that has seen them fight in the Donbas region in Popasna, in the battle for Kherson and then around Bakhmut, the embattled eastern city that is currently the war’s most violent front.
Even 5 miles (8km) from Bakhmut, back from the frontlines, the sound of heavy rockets and artillery is constant in a frozen landscape where all the roads are covered in a glazing of sheet ice.
It is here on this frontline that the Russians have spent almost six months trying to break through to reach the cities of Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and Konstantinovka in warfare that is being fought from frigid muddy trenches, and where the combatants must now slog through the fields and the dense woods of Ukraine’s east.
On Friday the fiercest fighting in Ukraine was again near the towns of Bakhmut and Avdiivka, amid reports of Russian shelling all along the frontline of the Donetsk region. “The entire front line is being shelled,” said Pavlo Kyrylenko, the region’s governor, adding that five civilians has been killed and two wounded.
While there are still civilians in towns and villages surrounding Bakhmut, a city under attack from two directions that was once home to 72,000 people, evidence of the scale of the continuing battle is everywhere.
Tanks hide among the trees where tracks through the thick scrub lead to firing positions. In the narrow lanes, a constant stream of armour and cars carrying soldiers goes back and forth between “zero” – as the frontline itself is called – and the rear positions.
Further back at casualty collection points, ambulances and shivering crew wait next to slit trenches to evacuate the wounded. When the Ukrainian artillery and rockets are fired – the latter in vast, expansive whooshes – Russian guns fire back within a handful of minutes.
But the soldiers say it is when the Russian guns open up in a prolonged artillery barrage, and stop as suddenly, that it is time to worry. It means the Russian infantry is coming as quickly as within a minute.
The accounts of Nazar and his fellow soldiers will be grimly familiar to many of those fighting on this brutal front, where the two sides have been swapping territory for almost imperceptible gain.
While for Moscow that lack of success, after a series of battlefield defeats, is significant, for Ukrainians simply withstanding the Russian effort has a meaning in itself. “When we came into the village and saw how many Russians were there, our mission changed,” said Nazar.
A stroke of luck, if it can be called such a thing, meant that with the distances so close between the Russians and Ukrainians, the Russian forces – mostly the recently mobilised, or mobiks – were unable to call in artillery.
“We could see them in the tree line firing blindly, like they were in Somalia, not wanting to show their heads.”
After a number of the Russians died in the first engagement, the battle settled into efforts by the Russians to push Nazar and his colleagues off their hill. They came in small groups at night, their movements exposed to the Ukrainians by thermal imaging.
For the first nights, the Ukrainian soldiers managed without sleeping bags, lying on the frozen ground and building a fire to warm themselves, scorched boots and clothing evidence of how close they had huddled near the flames.
“Then I found a sleeping bag from someone and someone else found a sleeping matt. The cold was very hard. We had no hot food at first and the water that we had was frozen,” Nazar said.
Vasyl, the 29-year-old deputy battalion commander, fought in this area during the summer in Popasna at the height of the Russian offensive to take the cities of Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk.
The shelling then, he says, was heavier than in the current battles. “They shelled everything. It was like a wall of fire. Now they seem to have less ammunition and use it more sparingly. We got one of their radios during our recent fighting here. We could hear the Russian unit opposite us calling and asking for artillery support ammunition and being told that there was none available.”
The soldiers note how when the Russians attack it is often with little tank support, with infantry dropped off and told to attack in a certain direction.
The town has turned into a critical objective for both sides, with Russians and Ukrainians moving troops from Kherson province and elsewhere to reinforce their efforts.
“Our impression is that they use the fighters from Wagner private military corporation as assault troops and that they use newly mobilised soldiers to defend positions. We could see them from a drone during a recent action. They looked chaotic and disorganised. It’s why we were able to kill so many,” says Vasyl.
While some of the Russian soldiers have wanted to surrender, others have prevented that happening. “We came across one group that wanted to surrender, but others further along carried on firing on us, so they couldn’t.”
The equipment on Russian soldiers that they have seen has been rudimentary. “We’ve seen mobiks in trainers with metal helmets of the kind you would see in the second world war. When we have recovered bodies they have no phones and no papers.”
For many of the soldiers down on this front, the Russian determination to take Bakhmut is baffling, despite the fact it is a railway junction. Even if the Russians take the city, the soldiers point out that the terrain beyond is even tougher to attack, and well-defended.
As Nazar waits for the next mission, he reflects on the fact that in the village that they left so recently the Russians have not attacked for the last three days.
In another three days it will be his birthday. “I’ll be 20. Our next mission could come on my birthday.” He pauses for a moment. “Or it could come today.”