Russia closes in on Bakhmut, but losses are high

KOSTYANTYNIVKA, Ukraine — A lone Russian soldier stumbling along a track across an open field suddenly staggers as a flurry of gunfire churns up the earth around him. He looks back for a second, ready to run away, but then continues to stumble into the gunfire.

“Do you see? He’s not carrying a weapon,” said Yaroslav, a filmmaker in civilian life who now heads a drone reconnaissance unit that filmed the incident.

“He’s a digger,” Yaroslav added, referring to one of the unarmed men Russian commanders send under Ukrainian fire to dig trenches and transport ammunition. In accordance with military protocol, he and other soldiers interviewed for this article gave only their military first names or nicknames.

The Russian army has been throwing thousands of men into battle for more than two months in its latest attempt to take the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut and its surroundings. The campaign was ruthless and extremely costly for both sides, but especially for the Russians, even as they advanced.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he and his generals were determined to hold their ground in Bakhmut, saying the battle did much to degrade Russian forces. And Ukrainian commanders on the front line say they feel Russian units are exhausted and could crumble in the face of a widely expected strong Ukrainian counteroffensive in the spring, after promised Western weapons are in place.

Until then, however, they face a relentless adversary who continues to advance in a grim, block-by-block struggle on the city’s frontlines.

“Our task since the beginning of the year: ‘Hold Bakhmut until the beginning of April’,” Ukrainian sniper Stas Osman of the Aidar Battalion wrote on the Telegram messaging app. “Guys go to town, but only in armored vehicles. The danger of such a decision cannot be overestimated.

Infantry from the 3rd Assault Brigade has spent the past three months battling waves of Russian soldiers around Bakhmut, many of them former prisoners recruited by the private military group Wagner. Although the fighting was deadly, seeing the Russians rush to their death was also a psychological shock.

“During the first month, every day, five to six times a day, groups of 10 to 15 people were advancing towards our infantry position through the treeline,” the unit’s media officer said. , which uses the codename Zmist. “They are killed and they come back.”

“Psychologically it’s hard – it’s something invisible,” he said. “Our guys are wondering if they’re on drugs. Otherwise, how can they go to certain death, stepping over the rotting corpses of their colleagues? You can go a little crazy.

Ukrainian reconnaissance units use drones to monitor Russian military movements and help coordinate artillery fire on advancing enemy troops. By spending hours watching tons of battlefield video footage, soldiers were able to study Russian methods and tactics, including its use of diggers and porters.

“They have a very good segregation of duties,” Yaroslav said. “Some just dig, some bring ammo, some are shooters and they assault separately.”

The Russians are very good at digging, added Yaroslav. As soon as their troops advance, men with shovels come up behind and dig burrows and bunkers, while others advance ammunition and hide it in the holes. “Soon they will have a whole village,” he said.

Russian strategy is being enforced by anti-retreat units, Ukrainian commanders say, as seen in video of the soldier stumbling towards Ukrainian guns. When he came under fire, Yaroslav noted, the Russian turned back to his own lines. But he did not turn back, Yaroslav added, in all likelihood because Russian soldiers are told they will be shot or imprisoned if they retreat.

Ukrainian commanders said they heard such orders from Russian commanders during phone intercepts, and even saw them in a document found in the pocket of a dead soldier that warned the penalty for desertion was execution.

Most of the Russians at the forefront of the battle are newly mobilized troops who have received minimal training, but they are good at two things, Yaroslav said: crawling and hiding underground.

“They’ll just crawl,” he said. “Even when there are bullets flying a meter above their heads, they crawl.”

Russian troops often hide in dugouts during the day to avoid detection and advance slowly at night, soldiers said. In one instance, Yaroslav said, the Russians simulated a retreat from forward positions at dusk. But when Ukrainian troops launched a night assault, they discovered armed and ready Russians in foxholes and undetected dugouts.

Archaic as the tactics were, they allowed Russian units to gradually advance, threatening the two routes Ukraine uses to supply its troops inside the town of Bakhmut – the T0504, a tarred highway that crosses the suburb of Ivanivske, and the O0506, a small country road through Khromove to Chasiv Yar.

In February, the Russians nearly achieved their objective of encircling Bakhmut. The troops advanced in a pincer movement, attacking from the southwest and northeast, sometimes hitting both roads.

Sign of the proximity of Russian troops, on February 2, the Ukrainians blew up a bridge on the T0504 highway when the Russians seized part of the road coming from the south. In late February they destroyed a bridge on the Chasiv Yar road to block the Russian advance from the north.

Had Russian forces captured the main highway, their troops could have bypassed Bakhmut and advanced rapidly towards the industrial town of Kostyantinivka, Ukrainian commanders and officials said.

“Bakhmut is here, but then there is a chain of cities,” Mariana Bezuhla, deputy head of the parliament’s security committee, explained in an interview in the city of Kramatorsk. “Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, Druzhkivka and Kostyantynivka, all these cities, hundreds of thousands of people.”

In mid-February, Ukrainian assault units launched a series of concentrated attacks to drive the Russians off the T0504 highway. The assault came just in time, with Russian troops also beginning to close in on the Chasiv Yar road. More troops were brought in to repel Russian advances there.

Meanwhile, fighting intensified inside the city.

Ms Bezuhla traveled to Bakhmut under cover of darkness last week. “The city is destroyed,” she said. “I was in Bakhmut about three weeks ago, and even since then the difference was very big.”

She said the din of fighting was constant. “He is under constant attack when you are in Bakhmut. There are constant street fights and planes, and it’s scary, because the planes are not ours.

The fighting moved from small private homes on the east side of town across the river to the multi-storey residential blocks in the center. When they encountered resistance, Russian troops simply demolished block after block with artillery, said Mamuka Mamulashvili, the commander of the Georgian Legion, a group of Georgian and international soldiers whose units fought in the inside the city.

“The artillery pushes us back,” he said. “They’re removing entire blocks.”

A veteran, Yevhen Dykyi, interviewed on a Ukrainian regional television channel, First Western, quoted a friend who had just returned from Bakhmut: “Finally, I escaped hell.

“This hell is close combat,” Mr. Dykyi said. “When you see the face of the enemy. When you throw grenades at each other’s windows, when the fighting is in private homes, and one house is ours and the next is theirs.

Fighting in the ruins of high-rise buildings was no easier, he said. “A starter can be ours, a starter is theirs.”

He quoted another of his friends who fought in Bakhmut: “We are not so tired of the fighting, but of the emotional swings. One minute we’re in the mood that ‘We’re all going to die heroically now and there’s no way out.’ For another minute, we’re in the mood, “Now we’re going to break them, we’re going to push them back. And these moods change several times a day.

Bakhmut was a meat grinder for both sides, Mr Dykyi said. But he insisted Ukraine should hold the city to thwart Russia. “He’s very sensitive to symbolic things, to symbolic defeats, to symbolic victories,” he said of Russia. “And Bakhmut is a symbolic city for them.”

“This amount of Russian casualties has not yet caused an explosion in Russian society, but it resonates very much within the Russian military,” he added. “And the longer these crazy losses – unjustified in the opinion of low and middle rank soldiers – last, the lower the morale of the Russian army will be at the time of our counter-offensive.”

nytimes Eur

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