In Lyman, Captain Andriy Malakhov is watching with concern as invaders’ strategies evolve and Kyiv debates next moves
March 6, 2023
The Globe and Mail
Three times a day, at least, Russian troops creep forward in small groups toward this city, which has already seen the front line pass through it twice in just over a year of war.
On most occasions, the invaders are repulsed by Ukrainian forces who have thus far largely held their ground in this area, which in peace time was an hour’s scenic drive north of Bakhmut, the city that is the fulcrum of much of the current fighting.
But if the Russian reconnaissance troops aren’t discovered, they make camp and call forward a larger force to exploit the weak point in the Ukrainian defences in this part of the Donbas region.
The probing, adaptive nature of the enemy advance toward Lyman is very dissimilar to the blunt “human wave” assaults Russian troops have been using in Bakhmut – and, to the commander of a Ukrainian unit stationed in Lyman, much more worrying. “They are not moving forward in a horde like they were at the start of the war. They are trying to find the weakest point and then they focus there,” said Captain Andriy Malakhov, who commands a special-forces battalion known as Wild Steppe, which has been stationed in Lyman since the start of the year.
Last fall, Capt. Malakhov and his men were the ones probing the enemy lines. The Wild Steppe fighters discovered a crack in the Russian defences near the city of Balakliya, in the neighbouring province of Kharkiv, which Ukrainian troops exploited in September to drive the invaders out of the entire region.
Now Capt. Malakhov, who was shot twice in the leg and once in the hip during a battle near Balakliya, is on the receiving end of the same military strategy.
The Russian army, he said, is no longer sticking to the Soviet playbook that led it to a series of defeats early in the war. Instead, they now appear to be mimicking tactics that Ukrainian troops learned over years of training by NATO. The key difference between the two styles of warfare is that NATO encourages local commanders to make snap decisions on the ground rather than constantly waiting for orders from above. “They’ve learned a lot from us, and now they’re using our tactics against us. They’re more dangerous now,” Capt. Malakhov told The Globe and Mail on Monday in Lyman, where artillery fire was audible throughout the day. He said Russian shelling also appears to be growing more accurate, something he believes may be a result of captured Ukrainian artillery officers being forced to show their Russian counterparts how to use specially designed targeting apps.
More flexible tactics – along with the greater motivation that comes with defending your home soil – were among the few advantages the Ukrainian army had over the past year while largely holding off an invading force several times its size. Without that edge, Capt. Malakhov was openly pessimistic about Ukraine’s ability to continue trading blows with the larger Russian force.
Capt. Malakhov, who returned to his unit in January after four months in hospital, recovering from the injuries he suffered near Balakliya, said fatigue was a growing issue for his men, who have fought in almost every major battle since the war began. Russia, meanwhile, recently replenished its ranks with hundreds of thousands of newly mobilized conscripts.
Russia, he said, has an artillery advantage of roughly 10 guns to one along the front line in Donbas – an advantage that’s accentuated in the Lyman area by a major highway that runs just behind the Russian lines, connecting the occupied cities of Kreminna and Svatove. “Their tanks drive off the highway, take shots at us, then get back on the highway and disappear. Same with their self-propelled artillery,” he said. “They dominate in every way. But it’s our land. We have a different mentality than they do.” The Russian push toward Lyman – which in prewar times was beloved for its summer camps and its location beside Sviati Hory National Park – and the escalated siege of Bakhmut are both seen as part of a new offensive aimed at fulfilling Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal of seizing the entire Donbas region.
Lyman was initially captured by Russian forces in May, then liberated in October at the end of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. The city, once home to 20,000 people, is almost deserted today, with nearly every building bearing the scars of the two battles and the relentless shelling of recent months.
Capt. Malakhov acknowledged that his unit’s losses were “high” and that it was getting more difficult for the special forces unit – which reports directly to General Valery Zaluzhny, the commander of Ukraine’s Armed Forces – to find suitable replacements. He said the current fighting in Donbas was the worst the Wild Steppe has seen. “We need victories. When you deliver more victories, you get a second wind and your fatigue doesn’t matter.”
There is escalating debate over whether Ukraine should withdraw from Bakhmut – after seven months of fighting – to more defensible positions west of the city.
Capt. Malakhov said pulling back would allow Ukrainian artillery to be used more freely, without fear of hitting friendly troops defending the Bakhmut pocket. Heavy weaponry being used to defend the city could also be redeployed to support troops holding other parts of a front line that is hundreds of kilometres long.
On Monday, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office said in a statement that he had met with Gen. Zaluzhny and General Oleksandr Syrsky, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, and that both had advised “continuing the defensive operation and further strengthening positions in Bakhmut.”
That contradicted media reports suggesting Gen. Zaluzhny was in favour of pulling back from the city – which has become known in Ukraine as “Fortress Bakhmut” – but that Mr. Zelensky refused to abandon it.
The fall of Bakhmut nonetheless feels increasingly inevitable.
On Monday, U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin downplayed the importance of a possible Ukrainian defeat. “I think it is more of a symbolic value than it is strategic and operational value,” he told reporters during a visit to Jordan. “The fall of Bakhmut won’t necessarily mean that the Russians have changed the tide of this fight.”
Ukraine’s resistance in Bakhmut has reportedly resulted in tens of thousands of casualties, the large majority of them on the Russian side, which has resorted to sending forward waves of poorly trained and lightly armed infantry. Holding the city also prevents Russian artillery from being moved forward to target other settlements in the region, such as the administrative capital of Kramatorsk, 50 kilometres to the west.
While Kramatorsk remains, for now, outside artillery range, Russian missiles are still capable of striking anywhere in Ukraine. Residents of the city were jolted awake Sunday night by a pair of large explosions. By Monday morning, the oldest school in Kramatorsk lay in ruins. “There’s a military base near here. Maybe they just missed,” the school’s principal, Olena Kushnyrenko, said standing outside the crumpled building, as workers swept up the shattered glass and collected broken bits of classroom furniture. The school was empty at the time of the attack, Ms. Kushnyrenko said, as all lessons had shifted online at the start of the war.
Ms. Kushnyrenko, who has one brother fighting in Bakhmut and another in Kupyansk, in the Kharkiv region, said Kramatorsk residents worry their city could increasingly come under fire if Bakhmut falls and the front line shifts west. “My fists are clenching with fear and anger,” she said as a fighter jet roared over her city Monday morning. “My brothers just write to me to say they’re alive, thank God. They don’t comment on the situation.”
Mark Mackinnon is the Senior International Correspondent for Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, and a seven-time winner of the National Newspaper Award, Canada’s top reporting prize. Author of The New Cold War: Revolutions, Rigged Elections and Pipeline Politics in the Former Soviet Union (Published 2007 by Random House Canada and Carroll & Graf) and The China Diaries e-book (2013).