In a choking fog blanketing the woods of Donbass, the sound of artillery takes on a chilling, disconnected quality.
Cannons crack nearby, invisible among the skeletal branches. Shells whistle in the darkness towards the Russian lines around the key town of Bakhmut, distant thuds marking as they hit their targets. When Russian guns fire back, it is with a different sound, the sound of incoming fire.
Dug in a grove of thick brush, a self-propelled howitzer from the 24e a mechanized brigade awaits orders as nearby guns fire, also hidden among the winter branches on a low ridge line.
The crew smokes, waiting for the firing coordinates to come over the walkie-talkie. The fog means no drones are flying – but the relative scarcity of incoming Russian shells is making soldiers nervous.
“I don’t like it when it’s so quiet,” says Andrii, one of the crew members. “It makes me tense.” Except it’s not really quiet. “The fog is tactical,” he says in a grim joke, aware he’s giving them respite. “For a while, they didn’t hit back at this village. But now they know we are here.
He adds by way of explanation: “80% of the population here is pro-Russian. Those who weren’t left. Most of those left are waiting for the Ruski mir [the Russian world] come. It was not like when we fought in Kherson. Then the civilian population seemed really happy to see us.
When fresh ammunition arrives, the men manhandle the heavy, slippery shells through the mud to where their weapon is hidden.
He remembers the last time his brigade visited this area, over the summer, when Ukrainian fire was repeatedly met by Russian guns.
“They were shooting at everything. Now they have become more frugal,” he adds, suggesting Russian ammunition shortages.
But the Russian shells arrive. The day before, two landed near the house used as a command post by the battalion’s fire brigade coordinator, shaking the windows of Natalia Hubar, one of the villagers.
The Observer the encounter walking through the fields with a jug of milk in a shopping bag she bought from a neighbor along with a cow.
” What can I say ? she says, explaining that she was a cook at a nearby military base before the Russian invasion and lost her job.
“Other people have it much worse. We have a wood stove to keep us warm but the electricity has gone out for the past few days. We’ve had a lot of Russian shells. It’s scary when they’re close and shaking the windows but my husband does not want to leave.
She speculates that a few days stuck in their basement safe from shells might finally change her mind.
Infantry combat beyond these hills among the streets and broken buildings of Bakhmut, and in the frozen muddy trenches, is one facet of this battle. The other is represented by the gun and rocket crews.
“They’re still using old Soviet tactics,” says Mikola, the fire coordinator, who provides target grids to drone operator fire crews and forward fire controllers with infantry. “We have more modern technology than the Russians, so we can be more accurate and economical with our ammunition.”
“We only fire when we have coordinates,” explains Vasily Pavlokavic, 42, a short and stocky officer who commands the howitzer crew.
As he speaks, ammunition flies overhead with a loud hiss. To Bakhmut. Towards Ukraine’s current defining battle.
The intensity of the fighting in the east was conceded by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy last week as heavy fighting continued over a long section of the front.
“The frontline situation remains very difficult in key areas of Donbass – Bakhmut, Soledar, Marinka, Kreminna. There is no area that has not been damaged by shells and fires. The occupiers destroyed Bakhmut and turned it into burnt ruins,” he said.
A town that was once home to 72,000, Bakhmut’s civilian population has fallen to 12,000 in the past six months, surviving in basements and supplied by mobile grocery trucks that enter the town when they can. .
Although it was first shelled by Russian forces in May, it only became a military objective for Moscow after Ukrainian forces withdrew from the nearby town of Popasna in August, with the Bakhmut sector being now the only area of the front line where Russia is still trying to advance. .
The battle for Bakhmut, however, became a struggle whose significance was defined more by the intensity of Russian efforts there and Ukrainian determination to block any Russian advance than by overwhelming strategic logic.
Once seen as a stepping stone on the way to the key Donbas cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, the efforts around Bakhmut seem to have become an end in themselves aimed, for now at least, at restoring a sense of prestige. soldier lost for the Kremlin after months of setbacks on the Moscow battlefield.
A widespread assessment that Russian forces have until mid-December before the onset of full winter conditions forces them to slow down their efforts has provided cause for a sense of urgency, though many are bewildered by the concentration of Russian assaults.
Even if the Russians could take Bakhmut, beyond that lies less easy terrain spread across a vast hinterland of forested hills and rivers and decaying post-industrial towns.
“We are scratching our heads,” a Western official told AFP earlier this week when asked about Russia’s attention to Bakhmut. “We don’t know the answer.”
A recent assessment by the Institute for the Study of War was even more damning. “Even if Russian troops continue to advance towards and into Bakhmut, and even if they force a controlled Ukrainian withdrawal from the town, Bakhmut itself offers them little operational advantage.
“The costs associated with six months of brutal, relentless, attrition-based fighting around Bakhmut far outweigh any operational advantage the Russians can gain by taking Bakhmut.”
To take control of the city, Russia relied on mercenaries from the Wagner Group, including convicts, and newly mobilized soldiers to send waves of attackers against the Ukrainian positions.
With Wagnerian forces used as shock troops, Ukraine’s defenders have grown accustomed to the reference in intercepted Russian radio traffic to “sending the musicians” – Wagnerian troops – against their positions.
Both sides are paying a heavy price in the battle, with some estimates of Russian battle deaths ranging from 60 to 100 each day, while a steady stream of casualties have been inflicted on Ukrainian defenders, nearly all of them shrapnel-related injuries. ‘artillery.
“They just send one group after another against our positions,” said Sasha, a member of 24e mechanized brigade fighting in the area, told the Observer.
“If the attack is not successful, they will try again in exactly the same way. The only strategy I see at this point is that they want to take the city so they can claim some sort of victory after a year that has seen so many losses.
“We have noticed over the past two weeks an increase in shelling and infantry attacks as if they are in a rush to take Bakhmut. It also means that they suffer increasingly large losses. They just throw meat away.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Russian Wagner Group, said his troops had mainly focused their efforts on taking down the Ukrainian army there.
“Our task is not Bakhmut itself, but the destruction of the Ukrainian army and the reduction of its combat potential, which has an extremely positive effect on other areas, which is why this operation was dubbed the ‘Bakhmut Meat Grinder’.”
But the forces of Wagner and Prigozhin are only part of a larger picture dominated by a figure of Sergei Surovikin, the overall commander of Russian forces in Ukraine. It was Surovikin who orchestrated the withdrawal of Russian forces to the Dnipro River in Kherson Province and a redeployment of some of those forces to the battles to the east.
And while his forces pressed forward, he also built a vast complex of new defenses on the eastern front both around Bakhmut as well as a 60 km long line of trenches running from Svatove, further north, on the Russian border suggesting that even if the Kremlin succeeds in Bakhmut, it may try to stabilize the front for the winter.
For now, however, reinforcements from both sides continue to arrive with the roads of Donbass filled with tanks, armored cars and missile launchers, as well as convoys of fuel and soldiers.
On his icy hill, Vasily Pavlokavic, watches the loading of the howitzer with shells.
“The war will only be truly over when Russia disintegrates into its constituent republics. It doesn’t matter if it’s Putin or someone else from the opposition, the threat will always be the same.