The war’s longest battle exacts a high price in ‘heart of Ukraine’

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Visitors used to browse Bakhmut’s late 19th-century buildings, enjoy strolls in the rose-lined lakeside park and savor the sparkling wines produced in historic underground caves. At that time, this city in eastern Ukraine was a popular tourist destination.

Not anymore. The longest battle of the Russian war has turned this city of salt and gypsum mines into a ghost town. Despite bombing, shelling and attempts to surround Bakhmut for six months the Russian troops did not capture it.

But their scorched earth tactics have made it impossible for civilians to have any semblance of life there.

“It is 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, who is originally from Kiev, arrived in the area in August when the Russian attack began and has since celebrated his birthday, Christmas and New Year there.

The 44-year-old watched the city, located about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the Russian border, gradually turn into a wasteland of ruins. Most of the houses are crushed, with no roofs, ceilings, windows or doors, making them uninhabitable, he said.

Of the pre-war population of 80,000, several thousand remain. They rarely see daylight as they spend most of their time in basements to shelter from the savage fighting around and above them. The city shudders constantly with the muffled sound of explosions, the whoosh of mortars and the constant sound of artillery. There is a potential target everywhere.

Bakhmut is in Donetsk province, one of four provinces Russia illegally annexed in the fall — but Moscow only controls about half of them. To take the remaining half, Russian troops have no choice but to pass through Bakhmut, which provides the only access to larger cities occupied by Ukraine since Ukrainian forces recaptured Izium in Kharkiv province in September, Mykola Bielieskov said. , a research associate in the Ukrainian army. National Institute of Strategic Studies.

“Without capturing these cities, the Russian army will not be able to complete the political task it has been given,” Bielieskov said.

The decline in Bakhmut started during the summer after Russia took the last major city in neighboring Luhansk province. It then poured troops and equipment into the capture of Bakhmut, and Ukraine did the same to defend it. For Russia, the city was a springboard to its goal of seizing the remaining Ukrainian territory in Donetsk.

From trenches outside the city, the two sides dug in for what turned into an exhausting confrontation as Ukraine regained territory to the north and south and Russian airstrikes across the country targeted power plants. and other infrastructure.

The months-long battle exhausted both armies. In the fall, Russia changed tactics and sent foot soldiers instead of probing the front line mainly with artillery, Voloschenko said.

Bielieskov, the research collaborator, said the least trained Russians are the first to force the Ukrainians to open fire and expose the strengths and weaknesses of their defenses.

More trained units or mercenaries of the Wagner Group, a private Russian military company led by a rogue millionaire and known for its brutalityform the rearguard, Bielieskov said.

Bielieskov said Ukraine compensates for its lack of heavy equipment with people willing to hold out to the last.

“Lightly armed, without enough artillery support, which they can’t always get, they hold off attacks for as long as possible,” he said.

As a result, the battle reportedly caused horrific troop losses for both Ukraine and Russia. Exactly how deadly is unknown: neither side says.

“Manpower is less of a Russian problem and in some ways more of a Ukrainian problem, not just because the casualties are painful, but they are often … Ukraine’s best troops,” said Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London .

The Institute for the Study of War recently reported that Wagner forces saw more than 4,100 killed and 10,000 wounded near Bakhmut between late November and early December, including more than 1,000 dead. The numbers are impossible to verify.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described the situation in Bakhmut as “very difficult” in a recent speech.

“These are constant Russian attacks. Continued attempts to breach our defenses,” he said,

Like Mariupol – the port city in the same province that Russia finally conquered after an 82-day siege that ultimately came down to a giant steel mill where determined Ukrainian fighters held out alongside civilians – Bakhmut has taken on an almost mythical significance 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 those cities that are no longer occupied depends on the rhythm with which it beats.”

For now, Bakhmut remains completely under the control of the Ukrainian army, albeit more like a fortress than a place where people would come, work or love. In January, the Russians captured the town of Soledar, less than 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) away, but their advance is very slow, according to military analysts.

“These are progress rates with which we cannot talk about serious offensive action. It’s a slow expulsion at a very high price,” Bielieskov said.

Along the frontline on the Ukrainian side, emergency medical units are providing urgent care to battlefield casualties. Every day, between 50 and 170 wounded Ukrainian soldiers pass through just one of several stabilization points along the Donetsk frontline, according to Tetiana Ivanchenko, who has volunteered in eastern Ukraine since a Russian-backed separatist conflict began there in 2014.

After the setbacks in Kharkiv in the northeast and Kherson province in the south, the Kremlin is hungry for some success, even if it’s just to take a few cities that have been bombed to rubble. Freedman, a professor emeritus at King’s College London, said the loss of Bakhmut would be a blow to Ukraine and provide tactical advantages to Russian forces, but would prove inconclusive to the outcome of the war.

There would have been more value to Russia if it could have captured a populated and intact Bakhmut early in the war, but now the capture would only give its forces options to capture more of Donetsk, Freedman said.

A 22-year-old Ukrainian soldier known as Desiatyi, or Tenth, joined the army on the day Russia launched a full-scale war in Ukraine. After defending the Bakhmut area for months and losing many comrades, he said he had no regrets.

“It’s not about comparing the price and losses on both sides. The point is that Ukrainians are indeed dying, but they are dying for 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 country. The country must, especially now, defend itself so zealously, so determinedly and desperately. This is what will help us liberate our occupied territories in the future.”


Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine:

Leave a Comment