In the ruins of a building tarred with soot and covered in dust amid relentless bombardment, a small group of Ukrainian soldiers face a new kind of Russian enemy: mercenaries, some of whom may be convicts sent to the front lines.
The battle is as heated as it is crucial around the city of Bakhmut. The Russian positions are within 200 yards of the Ukrainian military unit that CNN joined. The unit is caught in a gruesome artillery duel, sheltering in basements and using store-bought drones as the best line of defense and intelligence.
Through shattered windows, from inside the rubble-strewn rooms, Ukrainian soldiers gaze out across the nearby field, pockmarked with countless craters blackened by artillery impact.
“They can see us here,” said a Ukrainian soldier, pointing away.
He’s a new kind of frontline fighter. Moscow’s numbers dwindled after as many as 80,000 casualties, according to US officials, leading Moscow to turn to the country’s sprawling private mercenary sector, namely the Wagner Group.
The Wagner Group is reportedly headed by the man known as “Putin’s boss”, Yevgeny Prigozhin. A man matching Prigozhin’s appearance recently appeared in a video in a Russian prison yard, extolling to prisoners the virtues of joining his Wagner band and fighting on the front lines.
Here in Bakhmut is where this system is ruthlessly put into action. This town has been the focus of Russian forces in recent weeks, even as they abandon their positions around Kharkiv and appear to be struggling to hold elsewhere. Wagner mercenaries were deployed in this fight, according to several Russian media reports, and made gains around the eastern edges of the city.
The mercenary attacks are often devastatingly callous: Ukrainians tell CNN that Wagner’s fighters rush at them with small arms attacks, forcing the Ukrainians to fire on them to protect their positions. The shots then reveal where the Ukrainians are, allowing the Russian artillery to aim with greater accuracy.
The attacks are regular and the shelling is almost constant.
“We see an enemy mortar unit. They’re getting ready to shoot at us,” a drone operator said, looking at his screen.
During CNN’s time with this unit on Tuesday, shells intermittently landed nearby, at one point shaking the walls of the basement shelter. Here, a Ukrainian officer, known by his call sign “Price,” tells CNN about the last Russian they took prisoner.
“We fight a bit with these musicians,” he said, referring to the Wagner band, named after the composer.
“There was a guy from Wagner that we caught. He was a convict, from Russia – I don’t remember exactly where. It was get shot or surrender for him. They act professionally, not like the usual infantry units,” he said.
“The real problem is the artillery, it’s really accurate,” he added.
As he spoke, another shell exploded near the shelter.
Bakhmut’s city center is now littered with large Russian bombing craters, with main streets torn apart and stadium seats ripped in half.
Analysts believe the city could provide Moscow with a strategic position in the Donbass from which to advance further north towards Sloviansk and Kramatorsk – and deliver a much-needed strategic victory in an era of spiraling losses.
In a series of trenches on another front line, buried in the forests, Martyn, another Ukrainian officer, agreed.
“[The Russians] retreated somewhere else and they need a victory, something big, so they are sending forces here,” he said.
“Of course we have injuries, not today in our unit. But you cannot avoid the dead or the injured, sometimes seriously injured.
These losses were intensely personal. “I lost my close friend five days after we arrived here. His nickname was Dancer,” he said. As with so many call signs or nicknames, Martyn has no idea why his friend got this one.
Around the city, local life is punctuated by the massive explosions of the bombardments. One resident, Andrei, has desperate dark eyes that speak of explosions, lack of electricity, water and calm.
Still, he said of his street, “It’s not that bad, only one out of two houses is in ruins.”
Natalia, who helps many to earn a living, sells potatoes – half a ton of them in a single morning. “Who knows where the shelling is coming or going,” she said, as another loud bang made her laugh nervously.
“Don’t be afraid,” she added.
On Wednesday, the streets of Bakhmut appeared emptier and shelling appeared to intensify east of the city, with Ukrainian guns reportedly targeting Russian positions.
A building, already hit once, was still smoking after another rocket blasted through all four floors. Soldiers bustled anxiously in the street outside, inspecting the damage. Military vehicles streaked through the streets.
Slower, driving home with food in a cart with noisy, creaking wheels, was pensioner Maria, her eyes covered by large sunglasses.
“With God you are not afraid. And in your own land you cannot feel fear either,” Maria said.