'It's like World War I'... Inside the relentless and bloody battle for Ukraine's Bakhmut


“Ukraine’s biggest challenge is defending the city of Bakhmut. The most difficult situation, still, is in Bakhmut,” said Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy in his nightly video message Tuesday, highlighting the dire situation in the city on the eastern side of the nation.

Russian troops have been pressing forward their weeks-long drive to encircle and capture the eastern Ukrainian city, which was once home to 70,000 people. “The situation around Bakhmut is extremely tense,” said the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces Oleksandr Syrskyi, adding, “Despite taking significant losses, the enemy has dispatched its best-trained Wagner assault units to try to break through the defences of our troops and surround the city.”

As the war enters its second year now, the fighting has escalated in the eastern city, which holds strategic importance. If taken over by the Russians, it would be a first major prize for Moscow in more than six months and would open the way to seizing remaining urban centres in the Donetsk region, one of four Moscow claims to have annexed.

A ghost town

Bakhmut is a hellscape of destruction even by Ukrainian standards. What used to be a bustling town of 70,000 people has seen a gradual exodus and now only 5,000 civilians remain including some 140 children, the regional governor said this month.

The city has been plunged into darkness since August as there’s no electricity and parched since October owing to lack of water. The row of buildings have been reduced to rubble and everywhere one looks there’s only shells and debris of what people once called their homes.

A local resident stands near buildings damaged by a Russian military strike, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in the frontline city of Bakhmut, in Donetsk region, Ukraine. Reuters

The one constant sound that rings out in the city is that of shelling. Kazbek, a Chechen soldier fighting for Ukraine, told UNHERD, “Now the Russians are attacking Ukrainian positions from three sides.”

Ukrainian military officials have confirmed that Russia has increased their offensive in Bakhmut, but they have not seized control. “Over the past 24 hours, the enemy is raging, shelling with all they have,” Colonel Yurii Madyar, Commander of Ukraine’s highly experienced 28th Brigade, said on Telegram. “They are just breaking this city into molecules.”

The Russians have encircled Bakhmut from three directions. They can shell the only road in and out of the town, a precarious supply route. Last week, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian oligarch and Wagner’s founder, said his private troops had captured the village of Yahidne, on Bakhmut’s northern outskirts.

Speaking of just how dangerous the fighting has become in Bakhmut, former US Marine Troy Offenbecker, of Michigan told ABC News that the fighting there has been “chaotic”. “It’s been pretty bad on the ground. A lot of casualties. The life expectancy is around four hours on the frontline,” he was quoted as saying. The former Marine, now fighting as part of the International Legion added, “The past couple of weeks it’s (shelling) been nonstop. All day and night.”

A Ukrainian serviceman walks an empty street, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in the front line city of Bakhmut, in Donetsk region, Ukraine. Reuters

Echoing similar scenes of war from the frontlines, Serhii Hnezdilov – a 22-year-old volunteer soldier — told The Guardian, “It’s like the first world war… The Russians throw their people in so they can symbolically take the city. It’s terrible. And the place no longer exists.”

He added that Russians were suffering mass casualties each day, but the wave of attacks continue nevertheless. “It’s a meat grinder. Bodies are left where they fall. Their own people get injured and cry out. Nobody helps them,” the 22-year-old is quoted as saying to the British newspaper.

Also read: One Year of Russia-Ukraine War: Will the conflict end in 2023?

Russian advances

Due to the sheer scale of its bombardment and manpower thrown at Bakhmut, Russian forces have made incremental gains in the surrounding areas, giving way to concerns that Ukraine won’t be able to hold back much longer.

A Ukrainian solder told AFP journalists, “I think Bakhmut. They (the Russians) have smart people there, people who know how to fight.”

Ukrainian soldiers fire artillery at Russian positions near Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region of Ukraine. AP

Even analysts and war experts note that the constant bombardment by Russia might be just too much for Ukraine to counter for much more time. “The ammunition artillery fire coming from the Russians is just quantitatively much larger than what the Ukrainians can pay it back with,” Samuel Ramani, a geopolitical analyst and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute told CNBC.

Also read: Russian forces launch ‘human wave’ attacks in Ukraine’s Bakhmut: The World War II style of fighting explained

He added that even though Zelenskyy has been urging his Western allies for military support, it might not be enough. “So even with NATO bringing in more ammunition and bringing in Leopard tanks and many other things into the battle lines, it is just too hard for the Ukrainians quantitatively to equal what the Russians are firing,” Ramani added in the same CNBC report.

However, despite the heavy fire, the Ukrainians seem to be in no mood to surrender and are digging in their heels. Malesh, a 23-year-old Ukrainian soldier, reflected this stubbornness when he spoke to The Guardian. “They have a lot of artillery. We won’t let Bakhmut fall.”

A Ukrainian serviceman aka Dietolog of Rapid Operational Response Unit (KORD) patrols a street in Bakhmut, Ukraine. AP

On Monday, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, Hanna Maliar, said that the situation was difficult. “The enemy army is increasing the intensity of its assaults. The most difficult situation remains in the Bakhmut direction.”

She added on Telegram that Russia was using tactics of “exhaustion and total destruction”.

Significance of Bakhmut

The city of Bakhmut has been the battle ground for Russian and Ukrainian forces for months now, with most troops on the ground comparing it to the situation in the First World War. It is now being considered to be the longest and bloodiest battle of the year-long Russian invasion.

But, what is the importance of this eastern city? Home to a salt mining industry, it serves as a stepping stone for Russia to seize Donetsk and Luhansk. Michael Kofman, the director of Russia Studies at the US-based Center for Naval Analyses, explains that Bakhmut represents “a gateway” to Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, both of which have been subject to recent Russian missile strikes.

The fall of Bakhmut would be a tactical victory for Russia. For Ukraine, it would be symbolically damaging. Kofman, said in a TIME magazine report: “Bakhmut in and of itself isn’t that significant.”

According to Britain’s retired air vice-marshal Sean Bell, the battle of Bakhmut is more about Russian politics than the war itself. Much of Moscow’s offensives around the city are manned by Wagner Group mercenaries. After effectively telling Vladimir Putin that Wagner could prevail at Bakhmut where the Russian army could not, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is close to Putin, has a point to prove now.

With inputs from agencies

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'It's like World War I'... Inside the relentless and bloody battle for Ukraine's Bakhmut
'It's like World War I'... Inside the relentless and bloody battle for Ukraine's Bakhmut
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