Bakhmut: Russian Casualties Rise, But Tactics Change
- The 28th Brigade was attacked by Russian troops and tanks the night before. In a wooden gun position below ground, cold rain drips through the roof and onto the dirt floor. A Maxim belt-fed machine gun with strong iron wheels looks out into the empty landscape.
- As winter ends and spring begins in Europe in the 21st century, this is how the battle for Bakhmut is being fought. Men are still killed by the dozens in the black soil of Ukraine with a weapon from the 1800s.
Ukraine has made a line in the ground, and Bakhmut is that line. Few people think it is important from a strategic point of view, but tens of thousands of people have died fighting over it. It has been going on for more than seven months and is the war’s longest battle so far.
Last week, as fighting was still going on in and around Bakhmut, two Ukrainian army brigades guarding the city’s southern side let the BBC see where they were. The men have been fighting for months against both the regular Russian army and prisoners brought in by the Wagner private military group. Many of these prisoners have crowded into their trenches. Troops say that the number of Russian deaths is much higher than their own, but the enemy is using new tactics to try to take over the city and the area around it.
Ukraine’s forces are outgunned and outnumbered, but there is an anti-tank group from the 3rd Separate Assault Brigade on a chalk hillside to the south. 3Storm, as they are called, don’t give up. They have dug deep holes in the ground. As Russian artillery lands in the near distance, the wooden supports for the roof shake, and field mice run along the duck boards. An old field phone sits in a wooden nook. Their grandfathers would have known what this was like.
“They can’t get to us because we can see a kilometre in every direction,” says a 26-year-old soldier with a beard who goes by the call sign “Dwarf” and points out where the Russians are. “We can use everything we have to hit the enemy,” he says.
Neither the Russian nor the Ukrainian armies say how many people have died in Bakhmut or anywhere else, but the city, which is mostly empty, has become a slaughterhouse.
During the week that Dwarf’s company fought for the city, Russian prisoners from the Wagner group were sent to fight with them. “Every two hours, we fought,” he says. “I think one company fired 50 people every day.” In case there was any doubt, he says that these numbers were checked from the air. “The [Russian vehicle] arrives, 50 bodies come out, a day goes by, and 50 bodies come out again,” he says. He says that his company only lost a small part of that amount.
Officially, Ukraine says that Russia loses seven soldiers for every one of its soldiers that is killed. This week, Russia said that it had killed more than 220 Ukrainian soldiers in the battle for Bakhmut in just one day. None of these numbers can be checked by another source.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, two captured Wagner conscripts said that before they are sent forward, they don’t learn much other than how to crawl through forests in the dark. They are freed if they still live after six months of service at the front.
Conditions have started to change along the 600-mile-long eastern front. 3Storm’s hideout on a chalky hilltop feels like dry land compared to the area around it. The hard ground from winter has been turned into mud porridge by an early spring, which may help the defenders. We had to walk behind the Ukrainian soldiers to get there. After just a few steps, the thick dirt in my boots made them lumpy and heavy. A battlefield ambulance drives by shakily, its caterpillar tracks digging into the ground and spraying mud pools as it tries to get a grip.
We can’t say where we are, but the villages nearby are in ruins. “People Live Here” is written by hand on gates, mostly in Russian. This is both a statement and a plea. But the streets are empty except for stray dogs that roam the ruins of farms and homes that have been destroyed.
Over the past two months, Russian forces have been moving forward steadily to try to surround Bakhmut. General Oleksandr Syrsky, who is in charge of the Ukrainian ground forces, says that his people will keep fighting. “Every day of strong resistance buys us valuable time to weaken the enemy’s ability to attack,” he says as he sends more troops to the area. But not just Russians have been caught in Bakhmut’s trap. There are also more and more Ukrainians dying there.
On the hillside, a group of soldiers has gathered around a gun position, and I ask Dwarf, since Ukraine is losing soldiers to untrained Russian convicts, if it makes sense to defend a city that is surrounded by the enemy.
He says, “I was wondering, myself, if we should keep defending Bakhmut. On one hand, what’s going on here right now is terrible. There’s no way to explain it. But if we don’t give up Bakhmut, we’ll have to move to another settlement. What makes defending Bakhmut different from defending any other village?”
His fellow soldier, Holm, who is big and strong and has a full, dark beard, agrees. “This is not a question of strategy for us. We aren’t anything special. But this land is ours. Then, we could go back to Chasiv Yar, then to Slovyansk, and then back to Kyiv. We have to fight for every bit of our land, even if it takes a year, two, four, or five.”
The men have been fighting for over a year, and they say that the Russians are getting smarter.
“They’re getting smarter and smarter, and that really scares me,” says Dwarf. “They send out a group of five idiots who have been taken from jail. They get shot, but the enemy sees where you are, turns around, and then comes up behind you.”
Holm says that Russia is now better at using drones with grenades on them. He says, “We used to drop them and scare them.” “They are now firing grenades from drones at our positions.”
Before the war, Dwarf worked with young people in the outdoors. He would take kids hiking in the Carpathian Mountains on the western edge of the country. On the eastern front of Ukraine, that is a long-ago event. Since then, he has been in many battles, but the horror of Bakhmut is still with him.
When I ask him about Wagner’s army of prisoners, he thinks for a moment and then says, “I’ll tell the truth. It’s genius. These methods are cruel and wrong, but they work. It went well. Even in Bakhmut, it still works.”
After a few days, I’m back in the same area, this time in a UAZ jeep from the Soviet era with four other people. The driver, Oleg, says that the BMW logo on the steering wheel is just a joke. He doesn’t say much else as he grips the steering wheel and focuses hard on driving as the car whines and struggles up hills and through mud. The automatic gunfire in front of us tells us that we are getting close to the 28th Mechanized Brigade, which is facing the Russians directly.
In an instant, the landscape of war changes. The men are now holed up in a small wood, where Russian fire has broken and split the trees. In a month, they will be able to hide in the woods. For now, its bare branches make it easy for drones to spy on them. Nearby, there is an exchange of gunfire, and about 500m away, Russian shells hit. But Borys, a 48-year-old who used to be an architect and is now a captain, doesn’t seem worried.
“He says, “Today’s war is a drone war, but we can walk around freely because it’s windy and rainy and the drones are being blown away.” If it were quiet right now, both our drones and the drones of our enemies would be flying over us.”
On the way back, Oleg suddenly stops the jeep. A drone that got blown off course is on the ground in front of us. Its battery is taken out quickly, and it is brought inside, where it is found to be Ukrainian.
But war today isn’t that different from wars in the past.
The 28th Brigade was attacked by Russian troops and tanks the night before. In a wooden gun position below ground, cold rain drips through the roof and onto the dirt floor. A Maxim belt-fed machine gun with strong iron wheels looks out into the empty landscape.
“It only works when there’s a big attack going on,” says Borys. “Then it really works.” “So we use it every week”.
As winter ends and spring begins in Europe in the 21st century, this is how the battle for Bakhmut is being fought. Men are still killed by the dozens in the black soil of Ukraine with a weapon from the 1800s.