heart of Ukraine
But their scorched earth tactics have made it impossible for civilians to have any semblance of life there.
“It’s hell on earth right now; I can’t find enough words to describe it,” said Ukrainian soldier Petro Voloschenko, known on the battlefield as Stone, his voice rising with emotion and resentment.
Voloschenko, from Kyiv, arrived in the region in August when the Russian onslaught began and has since celebrated his birthday, Christmas and New Year there.
The 44-year-old watched the town, located about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the Russian border, gradually turn into a wasteland of ruins. Most houses are squashed, without roofs, ceilings, windows or doors, making them uninhabitable, he said.
Of a pre-war population of 80,000, only a few thousand remained. They rarely see daylight as they spend most of their time in basements safe from the fierce fighting around and above them. The city is constantly shaking with the thud of explosions, the hiss of mortars and a constant soundtrack of artillery. Everywhere is a potential target.
Bakhmut is in Donetsk province, one of four that Russia illegally annexed in the fall – but Moscow only controls about half of it. To take the remaining half, Russian forces have no choice but to pass through Bakhmut, which offers the only approach to major Ukrainian-held cities since Ukrainian troops retook Izium in Kharkiv province in September, according to Mykola Bieliekov, researcher at Ukraine. National Institute for Strategic Studies.
“Without capturing these cities, the Russian army will not be able to carry out the political task entrusted to it,” Bieliekov said.
Bakhmut’s deterioration began over the summer after Russia took the last major city in the neighboring province of Lugansk. He then poured in troops and equipment to capture Bakhmut, and Ukraine did the same to defend him. For Russia, the city was a stepping stone towards its goal of seizing remaining Ukrainian territory in Donetsk.
From trenches outside the city, the two sides dug into what turned into a grueling stalemate as Ukraine reclaimed territory to the north and south and Russian airstrikes across the country targeted power plants. and other infrastructure.
The months of battle exhausted both armies. In the fall, Russia changed tactics and sent in infantry instead of probing the front line mainly with artillery, according to Voloschenko.
Bielieskov, the researcher, said the less trained Russians are the first to force the Ukrainians to open fire and expose the strengths and weaknesses of their defense.
No more trained units or mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private Russian military company run by a rogue millionaire and known for its brutalitymake up the rearguard, Bieliekov said.
Bieliekov said Ukraine is making up for its lack of heavy equipment with people who are ready to go all the way.
“Lightly armed, without sufficient artillery support, which is not always possible for them, they resist and repel attacks for as long as possible,” he said.
The result is that the battle would have produced horrific troop casualties for both Ukraine and Russia. It is unclear how deadly death is: neither side says so.
“Manpower is less of a Russian problem and in some ways more of a Ukrainian problem, not only because the losses are painful, but they are often … the best Ukrainian troops,” said Lawrence Freedman, professor emeritus of war. studied at King’s College London.
The Institute for the Study of War recently reported that Wagner’s forces saw over 4,100 dead and 10,000 wounded, including over 1,000 killed between late November and early December near Bakhmut. The figures are impossible to verify.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in a recent speech, described the situation in Bakhmut as “very difficult”.
“These are constant Russian assaults. Constant attempts to break through our defences,” he said,
Like Mariupol – the port city in the same province that Russia finally captured after an 82-day siege that ultimately ended in a gigantic steelworks where determined Ukrainian fighters held out alongside civilians – Bakhmut rose to an almost mythical for its defenders.
“Bakhmut has already become a symbol of Ukrainian invincibility,” Voloschenko said. “Bakhmut is the heart of Ukraine, and the future peace of these cities that are no longer under occupation depends on the rhythm with which it beats.”
For now, Bakhmut remains entirely under the control of the Ukrainian army, but more like a fortress than a place where people would visit, work or love. In January, the Russians seized the town of Soledar, located less than 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) away, but their advance is very slow, according to military analysts.
“These are rates of advancement that do not allow us to speak of serious offensive actions. It’s a slow push at a very high price,” Bieliekov said.
Along the front line on the Ukrainian side, emergency medical units provide emergency care to the battlefield wounded. Between 50 and 170 wounded Ukrainian soldiers pass through just one of the many stabilization points along the Donetsk front line daily, according to Tetiana Ivanchenko, who has volunteered in eastern Ukraine since the start of a 2014 Russian-backed separatist conflict.
After its setbacks in Kharkiv in the northeast and in Kherson province in the south, the Kremlin is hungry for success, even if it only captures a town or two that has been reduced to rubble. Freedman, emeritus professor at King’s College London, said the loss of Bakhmut would be a blow to Ukraine and would provide tactical advantages to Russian forces, but would not be decisive for the outcome of the war.
There would have been more value to Russia if it had been able to capture a populous and intact Bakhmut at the start of the war, but now capture would simply give its forces options on how to take more of Donetsk, said Freedman said.
A 22-year-old Ukrainian soldier, known as Desiatyi, or tenth, joined the army the day Russia launched full-scale war in Ukraine. After months of defending the Bakhmut region, losing many comrades, he said he had no regrets.
“It’s not about comparing the price and the losses on both sides. It’s about the fact that, yes, Ukrainians are dying, but they are dying because of a specific purpose,” said Desiatyi, who did not give his real name for security reasons.
“Ukraine has no choice but to defend every inch of its territory. The country must defend itself, especially now, with such zeal, firmness and desperation. This is what will help us liberate our occupied territories in the future.
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