On his seventh visit to the ‘Somme-scape’ of the embattled and besieged eastern Ukrainian city, John Sweeney believes the Russian President has set a military test which he can only fail

Byline Supplement

Dec 2022

Bakhmut is a scribble in smoking rubble that says Vladimir Putin’s fascist dictatorship is teetering towards its death spiral. The freezing air is split in two by the percussion of artillery. A moment of silence, then the machine-guns start up, far too close for comfort. The Russian killing machine is in ear-shot but they keep on not taking the city.

Hiding in holes in the rubble are a handful of civilians clinging to a half-life. There is no power, light, or running water. The stay-behinds are in the large part old, poor, some a little mad and steeped in the Soviet half-myth of its great single-handed victory against the Nazis. They are generally pro-Russian, not for Ukraine. That’s kind of ironic because Bakhmut is Stalingrad 2.0. Adolf Hitler became obsessed with his army capturing the city on the River Volga. That was the start of the end of it and him. Vladimir Putin is obsessed with his army capturing the city on the River Bakhmutovka.

And that may well prove to be the end of it and him.

No wonder President Zelensky of Ukraine dared visit this big town in the eastern corner of Ukraine of no obvious strategic heft. For both Russian invaders and Ukrainian defenders, Bakhmut has become a symbol, Zelensky’s visit the ultimate proof that the buckets of blood shed by the Russian army to capture its elusive prize have been a terrible waste.

It is hard to convey just how grim life in Bakhmut is. On the road in, we saw Ukrainian ambulances going the other way, racing along murderously icy roads, carrying their wounded cargoes to hospitals and clinics well behind the front. They call Bakhmut ‘the meat-grinder’ for a reason.

Inside the broken city, the artillery duel, which is taking place mainly to the south and east of the city centre, never stops for a whole minute. Fresh craters pit the empty streets, newly charred buildings are sugar-coated by a fresh fall of snow. The bridge over River Bakhmutovka has been blown up but Ukrainian civilians and soldiers can scramble across its broken concrete beams that still straddle the icy blue waters. The land beyond the river rises in a bluff, the heights controlled by the Russians. To the south and east, the countryside, once growing grapes for Bakhmut’s sparkling wine vineyards, has been turned into a Somme-scape – trenches, broken trees, a living, breathing hell on earth. The Ukrainians make sure that foreign journalists don’t go there because it is so insanely dangerous.

Hardly any locals we encountered wanted to talk to us. There are two local shops that remain open, serving their tiny number of clients by candlelight. Workers in both shops asked us not to film and would not answer our questions.

Outside one shop in the city centre, a disabled man with no legs slept in a wheelchair in the freezing air, oblivious to the cold, to the rhythm and bass of incoming and outgoing artillery, to the madness all around.

In the twenty-first century version of Stalingrad, the role of the Nazi general Friedrich Paulus is played by a gangster-turned-caterer, Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, a unit of psychopathic mercenaries and freshly-released convicts, commanded by Dmitry Utkin, a Russian neo-Nazi with SS flashes tattooed on his chest.

Prigozhin owned the troll factory in St Petersburg that spun against Hilary Clinton in the US 2016 election, helping elect Donald Trump, the Kremlin candidate. His mercenaries have been accused of war crimes in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and, of course, Ukraine.

In Russia in 2018, reporter Max Borodin fell from his fifth-floor window after running stories critical of the Wagner Group’s conduct in Syria. The official finding was suicide, but his friends suspected he was murdered. Recently, video emerged of what happened to a former Wagnerite who had surrendered to the Ukrainians and was then traded back to the Russians in a prisoner swap. His head was cling-filmed to a breeze block and his skull smashed with a sledge-hammer. If people express surprise at the cruelty of the Wagner army, they have not been paying attention.

Like Hitler, Putin likes to see his cronies clash. Prigozhin, the Chechen quisling Ramzan Kadyrov and defence minister Sergei Shoigu are reportedly at loggerheads. What is certain is that Prigozhin’s mercenaries and convicts have been given favoured treatment by Putin. From August onwards, Russian artillery has enjoyed a supremacy of ten-to-one against the defending Ukrainians though there are some signs that the Kremlin is beginning to worry about its supply networks.