Changing strategy, Ukraine confronts Russia in Bakhmut

BACHMUT, Ukraine — It was mid-morning last Friday when the camera of a Ukrainian drone zoomed in on a Russian soldier surreptitiously moving among the trees on the edge of town. Another enemy attack is underway in Bakhmut.

The drone pilot marked the coordinates as he observed, then sent them via satellite link to artillery commanders.

Within minutes, Ukrainian artillery units had attacked the houses where they had found the Russians hiding. Smoke from the hits could be seen silently rising over the drone’s screen.

Later that day, however, an armored vehicle rumbled out of the eastern quarter carrying wounded Ukrainian soldiers to a stable point west of the city. Ukrainian troops were also attacked.

It was a grim stalemate with the rhythm of a heavyweight title fight, with each side going head-to-head in one of the longest-running battles of the war. That contrasts with Ukraine’s strategy elsewhere along the front line, where it has succeeded by avoiding direct confrontation, relying instead on agile actions, deception and long-range weapons by the enemy. West offers to force Russia to withdraw.

In the early stages of the war, the Ukrainian leadership was more ambiguous about battles as dramatic as Bakhmut. President Volodymyr Zelensky, in a rare moment of public self-doubt, considered whether the deaths of about 100 Ukrainian soldiers a day in Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk were worth fighting for for the two already ruined cities. or not.

But this time, there is no second guess. And new research shows last summer’s deadly urban battle wasn’t as pointless as it was at the time.

An analysis by two leading military analysts published last month by the Institute for Foreign Policy Studies illustrates the fighting of attrition. Analysts Rob Lee and Michael Kofman wrote that the battle weakened the Russian Army enough for two Ukrainian counterattacks in the fall to be successful. Those attacks, in the Kharkiv regions to the north and Kherson to the south, inflicted two of the most embarrassing defeats on Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s war effort.

“The amount of ammunition the Russians used and the casualties they caused caused the Russian Army to fail,” Mr. Lee said in an interview.

Whether Bakhmut can play a similar role ahead of Ukraine’s expected spring offensives, he said, depends on many variables, including how many troops Russia can deploy after the wave. mobilization this past fall and the ratio of contractors to regular army soldiers that Russia is losing around Bakhmut .

Viewed from the sky, on a drone pilot’s screen, Bakhmut glides quietly through reddish-brown mud roads, gray dilapidated houses and white smoke rising from fires. The stalemate has turned a swath of rubble and muddy, craggy fields on the city’s eastern perimeter into scenes reminiscent of World War I: Bomb craters are ubiquitous and deadly. The bodies of abandoned Russian soldiers lay scattered, while the Ukrainian army often complained of the stench.

“It was a place like Verdun in World War I, where each side was trying to bleed the other,” said General Frederick Hodges, a former US commander in Europe, of the battle of Bakhmut, now has entered the sixth month.

A drone flying over the wasteland on Thursday captured a typical scene: two Russian bodies lying on the battlefield next to an artillery crater. “It looks like the end of the world,” Pvt. Oleksiy Kondakov, a Ukrainian soldier who rotated out of Bakhmut last month, spoke about the area.

Inside the city, there were few civilians left, mostly on the less damaged west bank of the small river that bisects Bakhmut and Bakhmutovka. The eastern neighborhood is a panorama of collapsed and burned houses.

The soldiers settled into a familiar routine. Last Friday, a group of Ukrainians plunged down a muddy road in a sport utility vehicle, rolled into a yard and piled out, standing next to a wall with rifles at the ready, like most days they do.

Inside the relatively safe enclave of a dilapidated building, a soldier began to untether cables for a satellite link. Another unpacks a drone. They chatted happily with another unit that happened to be using the same destroyed building that day, sharing tea with them and ignoring the explosions and gunshots outside.

During the Tsarist era, the city was a commercial center in eastern Ukraine and a center of salt mining. The Soviet government renamed it Artyomovsk, after a Bolshevik who helped overthrow a short-lived independent Ukrainian republic in the early 1920s. Before the Russian invasion, it was located. of red-brick merchants and universities, nestled among the rolling grassy hills of the eastern Donbas region.

Today, about 7,000 people are still among the city’s pre-war population of about 100,000, according to Tetiana Scherbak, director of a volunteer soup kitchen on the west coast where several dozen civilians huddled around wood stoves on Friday , hand warmers and battery chargers. phone from a generator.

In the central square, despite the explosions, there were days when a drunk woman danced, spreading her arms like a child imitating the flight of an airplane. She is a character known to the locals still.

“Everybody suffers” in her own way, says Svitlana Shpachenko, 54, a former accountant who works at the soup kitchen.

In Ukraine, the long battle and heavy losses made Bakhmut a national symbol of defiance. While this has given besieged civilians a proud rallying cry, some analysts say it risks obstructing military judgment, delaying withdrawal. if necessary. They pointed out that a Russian advance could also be stopped from the high ground to the west of the city.

The battle for Bakhmut took place in two stages: in the first 100 days or so, the Russian regular army took part, and since then a private military contracting company, the Wagner Corporation, has recruited prisoners into their ranks.

The second phase was more bloody, as the Russians attacked the city using brigades of convicts. The company’s owner, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a close associate of President Vladimir V. Putin and said to want to win Bakhmut to strengthen his political position in Russia, has been experimenting with the new tactics.

Many of these units are essentially deserted soldiers who are sent into what Mr. Lee, the military analyst, calls “unsupported infantry attacks”. Ukrainian soldiers called them human wave attacks.

“It is a completely different nature” of war than elsewhere in Ukraine, said Serhiy Hrabsky, a former Ukrainian colonel and commentator for Ukrainian media, of the fighting around Bakhmut. Ukraine persisted in defending the city, he said, in part because “their losses are very important to us”.

Friday’s attack is a case in point.

The Russians were walking from the woods into town, no armored vehicles to be seen by the drones flying overhead. On the display, the altitude and range indicators are marked up and down.

“Without eyes, we lose people,” the drone pilot, who was asked to identify himself by the nickname Navara, said according to Ukrainian military policy. “And we can’t lose people. We have less, anyway.”

Navara asked not to disclose the exact location but said that it can be said in general about Russians moving into town that “the bastards are about 800 meters away,” pointing out the broken window of the building.

Not long after, Ukrainian artillery hit the Russians as they were sheltering in an area where one- and two-story houses were mostly destroyed. On the streets of the neighborhood, a gunfight broke out and machine gunfire echoed.

After a few flights, the drone fleet drove off to a different path, avoiding street fighting.

Private Andriy Pancheko, a member of the drone team, worked as an electrician in Poland before the invasion but returned and volunteered to join the army. In general, Ukrainians are defending their country, he said, because “if we don’t fight, we won’t have freedom.”

The purpose of the entrenchment in the ruins east of Bakhmut, he admits, is unclear. “I don’t know, I just take orders,” he said. “They ordered me to stay here. But why not? It is our land.”

Evelina Riabenko Reporting contributions from Kramatorsk, Ukraine.


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