Ukrainian commanders say they are sapping Russian strength in the city
By Matthew Luxmoore and Ievgeniia Sivorka
March 21, 2023
The Wall Street Journal
KOSTYANTYNIVKA, Ukraine—Every time Pvt. Viktor Daletskiy drives into the besieged eastern city of Bakhmut to pick up the injured and dead, the front line is a bit closer and the route in more precarious. “It’s really tough. They’re getting closer and closer,” he said of the Russians during a pit stop this week outside a gas station 14 miles west of Bakhmut. “But their losses are still greater than ours.”
The battle for Bakhmut is reaching a critical point as Russian forces throw assault troops on suicide missions, capturing territory inch-by-inch and closing around the city like a vise. As recently as January, Ukrainian commanders said the city wasn’t strategically important. In the past two weeks, they have changed their minds, rejecting the idea of withdrawal even as casualties have mounted.
Bakhmut, the generals say, is a key element in their efforts to weaken Russia’s army ahead of a critical Ukrainian offensive using fresh, Western-trained troops and modern equipment provided by the U.S. and its allies.
The commander of the armed forces, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, this week described the defense of Bakhmut as “key to the stability of the defense of the entire front.” Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, signaled support for Ukraine’s strategy. “Wave after wave of Russian soldiers are thrown into the chaos of war, absent any sort of synchronized coordination and direction,” he said.
Both sides are suffering heavy losses, but Ukraine says the ratio remains substantially in its favor. Soldiers fighting in Bakhmut this week described brutal urban combat as the battle has become an attritional slog against troops from the Wagner paramilitary group spearheading Russia’s assault there with units comprising mostly men drafted from Russian prisons.
The Bakhmutka River that bisects the city is now the line between Russian and Ukrainian positions. Russian troops this week managed to cross the river from the south, threatening Ukraine’s hold on the city center. As the Ukrainians dig in with improvised foxholes beside residential blocks damaged by weeks of shelling, the Russians blast their positions with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, soldiers say, edging forward building by building.
Both sides are now short on ammunition. As Ukraine rations shells ahead of its planned offensive, Russia is also hampered by low artillery stocks, Western officials say. Ukrainian Col. Serhiy Cherevatiy, spokesman for the armed forces in eastern Ukraine, said Russia is now firing 20,000 shells a day along the front line, a third the rate of just several weeks ago.
Ihor, a 44-year-old infantryman sent into Bakhmut for a two-day mission that ended on Saturday morning, said it doesn’t feel that way. The rate of Russian fire was so relentless that he never had
a moment to pinpoint a single Russian soldier through his gunsight. Only one building stood between him and the Russian positions, and his unit ultimately had to abandon it and retreat to a rear position. “It was hell on earth,” he said.
Pvt. Daletskiy and a medic from his unit travel into Bakhmut every other day in an American-made M113 armored personnel carrier. There is only one reliable road left into the city, a lifeline along which troops and supplies travel via the village of Ivanivske. Ukraine makes repairs to it under Russian fire, but it is now a dirt track after constant shelling by Russian forces that have moved to within a mile of the highway.
When the rain falls, the road becomes almost impassable, a muddy quagmire that only tracked vehicles like Pvt. Daletskiy’s can navigate. On each trip, he searches the bombed-out buildings along the Bakhmutka’s western edge and drags out his comrades, most of them wounded, some of them dead.
He said the wounded tell him stories of Russian troops from the paramilitary Wagner Group launching assaults with no artillery or air support and armed only with Kalashnikov rifles, moving forward despite being pummeled by Ukrainian tanks and mortars.
One of those captured, a 48-year-old from Siberia, said he was serving a 12-year prison term for attempted murder when he joined Wagner, and was captured by Ukrainian soldiers on Friday. He said he was sent into combat without a rifle as punishment for looting alcohol from a local store after being dispatched by his commander to find food for Russian troops.
Col. Cherevatiy, the military spokesman, said Russia as an attacking force is losing six men for each Ukrainian lost, although some Western analysts say recent Russian advances have reduced the Ukrainian superiority. “Bakhmut is Wagner’s final frontier,” he said. “Our main goal there is to wear them out, waste them away and destroy them.”
Russia is attempting a pincer movement from the north and south that would trap Bakhmut’s Ukrainian defenders inside the city. Further west, it is pushing northwest toward Chasiv Yar, a town overlooking Bakhmut that is often seen as a second line of defense should Bakhmut fall.
A unit of Ukraine’s 17th Tank Brigade is attempting to hold back that offensive, taking up positions 800 yards from the Russians who are assaulting a key road into Bakhmut. The Wagner troops move along the tree lines, continuing to march forward even when they come under fire. “Our motivation is to defend our land, but I don’t see what theirs is,” said First Lt. Mykyta Ivanov, the brigade’s deputy chief of staff. “It’s the first time I’ve seen fields covered with the bodies of dead Russians. It’s like some apocalyptic movie.”
The fight for Bakhmut is one of three major battles playing out across eastern Ukraine. To the south, Russia has largely stalled in its push to take Vuhledar. To the north, it is moving advanced T-90 tanks, armored personnel carriers, and mobilized troops trained for mechanized advances toward the town of Lyman, where Col. Cherevatiy said fierce fighting is taking place.
Lt. Ivanov warns that if Ukraine can mount a successful counteroffensive and push the Russians out of Bakhmut, further—and tougher—battles will lie ahead. “We shouldn’t think this war will end in Bakhmut,” he said. “I’m sure Russia is preparing for something much bigger.”
Matthew Luxmoore is a reporter covering Russia, Ukraine and the former Soviet Union with a particular focus on Russia’s defense, national security and the role of its military on the world stage. He was previously Moscow Correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and was the 2018 winner of New York University’s Reporting Award and a recipient in 2015 of the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award. Matthew grew up in Poland and holds a master’s degree from the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard, where he was a Frank Knox Fellow.