- By Quentin Sommerville
- BBC news
Ukraine has drawn a line in the dirt, and that line is Bakhmut. It is a city that few say matters strategically, but where tens of thousands have died fighting. It began more than seven months ago and is the longest battle of the war to date.
Two Ukrainian army brigades defending the southern flank of the city gave the BBC access to their positions last week as fierce fighting raged in and around Bakhmut. The men have spent months dealing with both regular Russian army troops and prisoners recruited by the Wagner private military group who have en masse occupied their trenches. Troops say Russian casualties far outnumber theirs, but the enemy is deploying new techniques to try to capture the city and surrounding countryside.
The armed forces of Ukraine are outnumbered and outnumbered, but on a chalk slope to the south is the anti-tank group of the 3rd Separate Assault Brigade. 3Storms—as they are called—are immovable. They dug trenches deep into the earth. Wooden struts supporting the roof vibrate as Russian artillery lands in the near distance, and voles scurry along decking. An obsolete field telephone stands in a wooden corner; these are conditions their grandfathers would recognize.
“They can’t reach us, we can see for a kilometer in all directions,” says a bearded 26-year-old soldier who goes by the call sign “Dwarf” and points out Russian positions. “We can hit the enemy with everything we’ve got,” he says.
Neither the Russian nor Ukrainian armies release official figures on Bakhmut or elsewhere, but the largely abandoned city has become a slaughterhouse.
In a week fighting for the city, Dwarf’s company had to deal with conscripted prisoners of the Russian Wagner group. “We had fights every two hours,” he says. “I think a single company was eliminating 50 people a day.” In case of doubt, he points out that these figures have been confirmed by aerial reconnaissance. “The [Russian vehicle] arrives, 50 bodies come out, a day goes by, 50 bodies come out again,” he says. His company lost a fraction of that number, he says.
Officially, Ukraine estimates that for every soldier killed, Russia loses seven. Earlier this week, Russia said it had killed more than 220 Ukrainian soldiers in the battle for Bakhmut in a 24-hour period. None of these numbers can be independently verified.
In a newspaper interview, two captured Wagner conscripts told the Wall Street Journal that before they are sent forward, they receive little training other than learning how to crawl through woods in the dark. After serving at the front for six months, they are released – assuming they survive.
Conditions along the 600-mile eastern front are beginning to change. The chalky hilltop shelter of 3Storm feels like dry land compared to the surrounding area. An early spring has turned winter’s hard ground into muddy mush – which could benefit the defenders. To get there we had to follow the Ukrainian soldiers on foot – within a few steps my boots become lumpy and heavy with the thick dirt. A battlefield ambulance speeds unsteadily by, its tracks plowing the ground and spraying puddles of sludge as it struggles for traction.
The villages around here – the location cannot be revealed – are in ruins. Handwritten signs on gates, mostly in Russian, announce “People live here”, both a plea and a statement. But the streets are completely empty except for abandoned dogs roaming the ruins of destroyed farms and houses.
For the past two months, Russian troops have advanced steadily in an attempt to encircle Bakhmut. The commander of the Ukrainian ground forces, General Oleksandr Syrsky, says his forces will continue to resist. “Each day of steadfast resistance gives us precious time to reduce the offensive capabilities of the enemy,” he says, sending more reinforcements to the area. But it’s not just Russians who have fallen into the Bakhmut trap. Ukrainians are also dying there, in increasing numbers.
On the hill a group of soldiers has gathered around a gun position and I ask Dwarf – given that Ukraine is losing soldiers to untrained Russian convicts – if there is any point in defending the dead city surrounded by the enemy.
He says: “I myself wondered whether we should continue to defend Bakhmut. On the one hand, what is happening here is terrible. There are no words for it. But the alternative is that we give up Bakhmut and move to another settlement. What is the difference between defending Bakhmut or another village?”
His comrade, a strongly built man with a full dark beard who goes by the nickname Holm, agrees. “It is not a strategic issue for us here. We are ordinary soldiers. But this is our land. We can then retreat to Khasiv Yar, from Chasiv Yar to Slovyansk, and so we retreat to Kiev. Let it be a year or so two last, four, five – but we have to fight for every piece of our country.”
The men have been fighting for over a year now and they say the Russians are evolving.
“They’re learning, they’re getting smarter, and it’s really driving me nuts,” says Dwarf. “They send out a group – five idiots who got out of prison. They get shot, but the enemy sees where you are, walks around and you get surrounded from behind.”
Holm indicates that Russia is now using drones armed with grenades more effectively. “We were always dropping them and scaring them,” he says. “Now they are dropping drone grenades on our positions.”
Before the war, Dwarf was an outdoor youth worker, taking young people on treks in the Carpathian Mountains on the western edge of the country. Here on the eastern front of Ukraine, that is a distant memory. Since then he has fought in many battles, but the horror of Bakhmut is what remains with him now.
When I ask about Wagner’s prison army, he pauses and says, “I’ll be honest. It’s genius. Cruel, immoral, but effective tactic. It worked. And it still works in Bakhmut.”
Days later, I’m back in the same area, crammed into a Soviet-era UAZ jeep with four others. The steering wheel has the BMW logo – a joke says the driver, Oleg. He says little else as he grips the wheel and concentrates hard as the car whines and struggles over hills and through the mud shoals. The automatic gunfire in front of us indicates that we are approaching the 28th Mechanized Brigade, who are directly opposite the Russians.
The war landscape changes in an instant – the men are trapped in a small forest, the trees shattered and split by Russian fire. In a month the wood will cover them. For now, the bare branches expose them to surveillance drones. Nearby there is a gunfire and Russian shells hit about 500 meters away. But Borys, a 48-year-old former architect who now serves as a captain, seems unconcerned.
“Today’s war is a drone war,” he says, “but we can roam freely because there is wind and rain today and drones are blown away. If today were quiet, both our drones and those of our enemy above would our float.”
On the way back, Oleg brings the jeep to a sudden stop. In front of us in the mud lies a drone that has been blown off course. The battery is quickly removed and brought inside – it turns out to be Ukrainian.
But the war of today is not so different from that of the past.
Two nights earlier, the 28th Brigade was attacked by Russian infantry and tanks. In a wooden cannon position underground, the cold, rain drips through the roof onto the earthen floor, and there, peering into the barren landscape, is a belt-fed Maxim machine gun with sturdy iron wheels.
“It only works if there’s a massive attack going on…then it really works,” says Borys. “So we use it every week”.
And so the battle for Bakhmut is fought as winter turns to spring in 21st century Europe. A 19th century weapon is still mowing down men en masse in the black Ukrainian soil.