Russia finally captured Bakhmut after a long and bloody battle that resulted in heavy casualties on both sides
More than a year ago, but Yana Olga says that she will never forget the day when the war came to Bakhmut.
“It was shortly before my birthday, in the spring, when the explosions struck. We have seen fights since 2014, but this time the fear was stronger,” said the 35-year-old native of Donbass.
“My elderly mother and father were alone, my husband had to go and rescue them. I waited at home, fearing that I would never see the three of them again. I was pacing back and forth like a madman.”
These explosions were just the beginning of what could be the turning point of this war.
Before the war, Bakhmut – formerly called Artemovsk, after the local revolutionary, – was famous mainly for salt mines and champagne.
It survived the first Russian invasion in 2014 relatively unscathed. Wide green streets, red-brick houses, and a bustling central market gave it a sense of history and character uncommon in many industrial cities in the region.
In the first weeks of the 2022 invasion, Bakhmut was relatively safe. The old front line, frozen two dozen miles to the south and east after the 2014-2015 conflict, remained stable.
But when the Russians abandoned the assault on Kiev in favor of a spring campaign in the Donbass, it immediately became a target for air and missile strikes.
Throughout April, May, and June, the city hospital was filled with glassy, bloody men evacuated from the battlefield at Severodonetsk, 25 miles up the highway to the northeast, and at Popasnaya to the east.
Bakhmut slider 6
Bakhmut itself remained busy, and the central square and the nearby market were filled with locals, soldiers and displaced persons from neighboring towns.
Papasnaya fell in May. Listchansk and Severodonetsk followed in early July. A month later, the assault on Bakhmut by the Russians began.
From the very beginning, a significant part of Yevgeny Prigozhin's mercenaries from Wagner participated in the operation.
They took credit for the breakthrough near Popasna and were proud of themselves as hardened shock troops, ready and able to take on the job and bring it to the end. the army will not touch.
Bakhmut slider 1
But the advance was slow.
As their frontal attack bogged down on the eastern outskirts of the city, the Russians began to attack from the flanks in an attempt to influence the environment.In mid-September they managed to cross the Bakhmutskoye River, near Nikolaevka Druga, eight miles south of the city, but with difficulty they managed to turn the bridgehead into a breakthrough.
By late autumn, the front line was 16 miles. across, stretching from the village of Kurdyumovka in the south to Soledar and Bakhmutsky in the northeast. The battle has reached a stalemate.
At first, Ukrainians found Russia's persistence puzzled.
Bakhmut is a town of medium importance in the Donbass.
It has – or used to have – a decent infrastructure and is at the intersection of a railway line and two important roads leading to Konstantinovka and Slovyansk, which Russia will have to capture if it wants to achieve its goal of conquering the Donetsk region.
But there were and other possible ways of attacking these cities. To the west of the city there are easily defended highlands, so the capture of Bakhmut will never lead to the general collapse of Ukraine. And the city itself, like any built-up area, favored the defenders.
Perhaps, some Ukrainian military mused, the mercenaries were paid for every meter of land they took. Perhaps Prigozhin was promised a concession for the extraction of salt or rare metals. Or maybe he wanted to offer the city to Russian President Vladimir Putin as a personal gift.
By this time, the city itself was under almost merciless shelling. But even now, civilians needed time to come to terms with what was happening.
“When I arrived in Bakhmut, it was absurd,” said one of the local soldiers, who asked not to be named. .
“The enemy was already on the outskirts of the city. Many of the local population stayed and did not want to leave their homes, children played in the playgrounds, next to the damage from artillery shells.
Among the rest was Yana, who stayed with her husband and young son in their two-room apartment, despite being aware of the increasing risk.
Like many who refuse to leave the city's battlefields, she said she didn't know where to go and hoped in vain that the battle would just end.
“Our energy was becoming less and less. It was cold, we had no heating, no water, we were afraid of the worst. But we didn’t know when, how and if we could run,” she said about these autumn months.
“All our friends are long gone. We stayed in the hope that our city would not be lost. We were fools. There isn't much left, a lot of rubble left.”
“Every night I stayed up waiting for our house to be hit while my family slept, and even now I see a picture of my dead son every time. I close my eyes. He is three. I pray every minute that this will not come true.”
Locals and soldiers have already learned to use the weather as a predictor of violence.
Clear skies were bad news. Low clouds, rain, fog and wind is good – if the drones do not fly, then the Russian artillery is blind, which means it is worth the risk to go to the city for a handout for bread.
When the telegraph brigade took advantage of the terrible rainy day to enter the city in October, it has already turned into a ghost town.
The Central Market, swarming with soldiers and civilians just a few months ago, was smashed to smithereens.
The main road bridge across the river was blown up. The streets were blocked with anti-tank traps, weighted with concrete blocks. Electricity, water supply and water supplies were intermittent at best.
Residents of the eastern suburbs, waiting for a break in the artillery shelling, made their way along the destroyed bridge for food in the city.
Siege of Bakhmut mapped
Yana and her family finally gave up in December, moving in with their sister in Kupyansk, a recently liberated city in the Kharkiv region.
This, she says, is a temporary solution. The fighting there is now escalating.
At the front, the weight of numbers and artillery shells was on the side of the Russians. Week after week, they made slow but tangible progress.
“It was as scary as fear that gets under the skin. There are a lot of Russians there. And they keep advancing and advancing,” said Anastasia Chumenko, a tactical doctor who went through the entire battle.
— The soldiers ask: where is my brother? And you look away and zip up the black bag. There are no words on this earth to convey this pain.”
She noticed that the battle forced a momentary reassessment of life and values, which sometimes did not make sense.
“Once we were working on a rescue operation after an apartment building was hit,” she said. .
“It was completely destroyed. I opened the door of one apartment. The family was inside. I said that we should evacuate them because the building could collapse.
“They were trying to collect some absolutely illogical things. Not documents, not money. But some toys, mugs, pictures… People tried to collect their most precious moments before going nowhere.
“At that moment, I realized that life is too short to spend it on money or a super job. Because in the end, you will remember your “precious moments”. >It soon turned into a black hole at the center of the galaxy, creating its own gravity that distorted the landscape of the entire war.
All types of Ukrainian forces – the army, police, border guards – were sucked into the whirlpool.
Whoever was deployed knew that many of them would not return. For hundreds of miles around, military hospitals were overflowing with the wounded from what the military calls the “Soledar-Bakhmut direction.”
Commanders in other areas, speaking privately, became worried.
Bakhmut took their tanks, guns and best people. “Everything has gone there,” one officer stationed more than 100 miles away told The Telegraph in January, explaining his vulnerability to a possible Russian attack. during World War I.
1305 Bakhmut Ukrainians advance
But in Bakhmut it was not clear who was bleeding whom.
Mr. Prigozhin claimed that he was painting the unit's best Ukrainians in a battle of attrition, where they would be weakened and destroyed.
The theory—perhaps an after-the-fact justification for sunk costs—was that Ukraine would be forced to commit the reserves it held back for a spring offensive in 2023.
But now the Russians have also added additional funds. Wagner throws battalions and regular army units into the meat grinder.
Especially in the early stages of the battle, their commanders seemed willing to take colossal losses in exchange for relatively small gains.
Ukrainian officials and several prominent Western military experts have argued that the loss ratio at Bakhmut was so large in Ukraine's favor that it more than justified Kiev's own losses.
Then, just before New Year's Day, the Russians managed to break the stalemate.
The blow fell not on Bakhmut itself, but on Soledar, a small salt-mining town eight miles to the north, which bolstered the Ukrainian left flank.
The fight here was, after all, a microcosm of the whole battle – tiny advances bought with a huge amount of money that eventually forced the Ukrainians to retreat by fire and numbers alone.
“It was the worst battle of the entire war,” said one Ukrainian paratrooper who survived.
He described how the Russians sent wave after wave of men who continued to attack, no matter how many of them were shot.
Meanwhile, the sacrifices demanded of the Ukrainian infantry created a certain degree of resentment between the soldiers in the trenches and generals behind the lines.
Artillery support was arriving late or not at all, ammunition was running low, and commanders seemed unwilling to risk armor during resupply.
“We were basically told that if you backed down, you would go to jail. So you will get out of there only if you are 200 or 300 people, ”said the paratrooper, using military slang for the dead and wounded.
Generals,” he concluded, “care about protecting machines, but not about lives.”
Counter Offensive Ukraine 2
The Russian strategy was so costly that many observers suggested that the regular military would refuse to use it.
But it worked.
Ukrainians recognized the loss of Soledar on January 16th.
Mr. Prigozhin immediately declared his victory in a video that was more aimed at the Russian Defense Ministry than at Ukraine.
He claimed that it was exclusively a Wagner operation.
In the coming months, his willingness to publicly insult the top leadership of the Russian army, in particular Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, will expose serious disagreements in the Russian command.
< p>The loss of Soledar itself may not have been fatal for Bakhmut.
But around the same time, another Russian attack came to the south.
For more than two weeks in mid-January, Russian troops between Kurdyumovka and Opytny are advancing northwest along the Donetsk Canal, aiming not at Bakhmut himself, but on the highway behind him.
By January 26, they were in the T-0504 direct firing zone between Bakhmut and Druzhkovka.
Violent Ukrainian retaliation, supported by helicopters, stopped them right next to the road, but could not drive them far enough to protect her from direct fire.
Another road, a broken alley through the town of Chasov Yar, remained relatively safe, but it was also under artillery fire from closed positions.
Bakhmut was at the tip of a vulnerable ledge when the jaws of the Russian encirclement closed from the north and south . Inside the city, the Russians were approaching the river, the main line of Ukrainian defense.
Among the soldiers and volunteers, rumors began to circulate about an imminent retreat. Most gave the defense another two weeks maximum.
It wasn't just the Ukrainian rank and file that questioned their generals' decision to hold the city.
US Intelligence A January assessment, leaked online in April, said Russia's relentless advance had “threatened Ukraine's ability to hold the city.”
Ukrainian forces are likely to be “threatened with encirclement if they do not retreat within the next month,” he added.
Map: how the war unfolded – phase 5 unit attacks and counter-attacks continued, but no one had any illusions as to which direction the battle would go.
“The worst experience is when you go on the offensive, and people are dying because many more people die in the offensive than in those who are defending,” said Nazar, a 29-year-old soldier from the 10th Separate Mountain Assault Brigade. The Telegraph sms at that time.
“Recently we were on the offensive, the enemy was sitting in the trenches. We tried to outflank them, and ours went in the center, but the enemy opened fire, saw them, noticed.
“The mortar started working for them, and two of ours were killed. immediately one was wounded, but died before reaching his positions, so everyone retreated and the assault failed. Now this is not uncommon. "
“The situation is now difficult, there are many of them, they are advancing numerically, the brigade has been at the forefront since the beginning of a full-scale invasion,” he added. “Everyone is tired, we need to take turns, but we can't.”
On March 3, Mr. Prigozhin released another triumphant video message telling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to surrender the city.
“Wagner PMC units almost surrounded Bakhmut,” he said, standing on a rooftop with visibly frightened Ukrainian prisoners . “There is only one route left. The pincers are shrinking.”
On the map, Prigozhin's case was convincing.
Mr. Zelensky refused to budge. In his own late-night video message on March 6, he said he directly asked his top generals whether to withdraw the city or fortify it.
“Both generals replied: do not retreat and strengthen. And this opinion was unanimously supported by the team,” he said. “There were no other opinions.”
And so Ukraine fought, despite the complaints of front-line units about a chronic shortage of shells.
Andriy, a sergeant of the 93rd mechanized brigade, told The Telegraph at the time time that “the situation is very difficult, but manageable.”
“I can't understand the Russians, they see that many people die here. But they go and go, more and more. Every day they take steps forward here,” he added.
“But more and more people are dying on our side. They come to us without experience of war. Good fathers, good men working normal jobs. And they don't want to kill, die, but they owe it for our freedom.”
The cost of the war
By the end of April, the Ukrainians held only a few high-rise buildings on top of a hill overlooking the western outskirts of the city. The area was too small to spread out from artillery fire, and the roads were too unreliable to retreat.
But by this time, the Russians also felt the tension.
Then the unthinkable happened.
On May 9, under the cover of sudden and furious artillery fire, Ukrainian tanks and infantry attacked the Russian flanks north and south of the salient.
In fierce close combat, the poorly equipped and easily dug-in Russian regulars holding the flanks crumbled.
In a matter of hours, the Russians lost hundreds of meters, and in some places more than a kilometer, which took them weeks to capture and months.< /p>
The suddenness of the reversal shocked everyone.
Some excited pro-Ukrainian commentators announced the beginning of a countercircle modeled on the Soviet counterattack at Stalingrad.
Stunned Russian military bloggers began to predict disaster. Mr. Prigozhin publicly blamed the army. Others accused him of deliberately setting the regular troops to failure.
A Ukrainian officer involved gleefully added fuel to the fire, telling CNN that in reality the Russian army fought to the end and Wagner fled.
However, the mood on the ground was more subtle.
However, the mood on the ground was more subtle.
Compared to January, as the counterattack unfolded, there was a strong sense of renewed confidence among many Ukrainian forces around Chasovoy Yar.
But this is far from a triumph.
And a real goal the counterattack may have been more modest—opening supply roads long enough to safely withdraw the remaining troops.
May 10—Last of Bakhmut
This view was confirmed when Mr. Prigozhin filmed Wagner on May 21st. a flag was raised over what he said was the last apartment building.
The city, he argued, had finally become Russian. Well, Wagner.
Putin publicly congratulated him. Officially, the Russian state announced victory.
It may turn out to be false.
The Ukrainians escaped the threat of encirclement. Their new line of defense on the high ground to the west of the city is well prepared and well manned.
For Russia, there is no obvious path to the cities of Konstantinovka and Slavyansk, their next logical targets.
And the assaults on the flanks continue. Perhaps the promised encirclement will occur, and the city they fought so hard for will turn out to be a trap for the Russians.
It is also not yet clear who won the battle of attrition – whose side bled the other, whiter one for nine long months , and who could better afford the sacrifices he made because of the ruined city.
This decision will have to wait for the coming counter-offensive of Ukraine or even the end of the war itself.
For the front-line soldiers, the fall of Bakhmut did not bring respite. They are tired and know that new battles are ahead.
“There are no such feats as before, we are on the defensive, patiently, people are dying,” Nazar, a soldier in the 10th Mountain Division, says in the text message.
“In general, there is no rest for a month, well, except for shelling.”
Aleksey, another soldier in the area, wrote in a more optimistic message: “Bakhmut has not been controlled for two days now. But we are confidently moving along the flanks and in the future it will be surrounded.
“Wagner will leave. They will be replaced by the regular army of the Russian Federation. They cannot hold Bakhmut for a long time.
“The fact that Bakhmut is not under our control is hard, but we do not give up and will turn this situation in our direction. There is always a way out.”
It is quite possible. There have already been enough dramatic twists of fate in this war to make anything possible.
But the locals who fled, however, do not have such optimism.
Many of them are too are well aware that there is nothing to return to in Bakhmut, even if it is recaptured.
Bakhmut Slider 4 Residential
“I dream of having dinner at my parents’ house with my sister and her children, but they are not at home and this will never happen again. I remember how my parents found out they had lost everything. My mother cried in a way I had never seen before,” said Yana
“I feel that the Russians are not going to let us go. Bakhmut will be in their power.”