Ukrainian commanders said that Russia exhausted all its reserves on the eastern city, though soldiers said the cost in lives had been steep.
By Carlotta Gall
March 30, 2023
The New York Times
Hidden in the bowels of an unmarked building, set well back from the fighting, a command center directing operations in the city of Bakhmut was high-tech and humming. Soldiers monitored video screens with live feeds of destroyed buildings and a cratered battlefield. Six weeks after coming to help defend Bakhmut, the men of the Adam Tactical Group, one of Ukraine’s most effective battle units, were quietly confident they had turned the tide against Russian troops trying to encircle and capture it.
“The enemy exhausted all its reserves,” the commander, Col. Yevhen Mezhevikin, 40, said on Tuesday, straddling a chair as artillery, air defense and intelligence-gathering teams worked around him.
Through wave after wave of Russian assault and tenacious Ukrainian defense, Bakhmut has, over eight months, become a central battlefield of Russia’s invasion despite limited strategic significance.
Russia has lost extraordinary numbers of troops in the battle, and Ukraine large numbers, too, and as casualties have mounted, so has the political symbolism of the city. Kremlin officials have described it as a necessary prize in the campaign to seize Ukraine’s Donbas region. To Ukraine, it has become an important line to hold, both to whittle down Russia’s forces and to deprive them of a victory.
But now, Colonel Mezhevikin said, the Russian assaults have slowed and the imminent threat of encirclement has been thwarted. “The density of assaults dropped by several times,” he said. “Before, they could assault in all directions simultaneously and in groups of not less than 20, 30 or 40 people, but gradually it is dying down.”
The commander’s description aligned with those of Ukraine’s most senior military commander, Gen. Valery Zaluzhnyi, and his commander of ground forces in the east, Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky. Both have said in recent days that the situation of Bakhmut was stabilizing, even with heavy fighting for some Ukrainian units.
On Thursday, the General Staff of Ukraine’s military acknowledged on Facebook that Russia was “having partial success” in its attempts to take the city, without further detail. But it added that Ukraine’s forces continued to hold the city and “repel numerous enemy attacks.”
Colonel Mezhevikin said that he was confident that Ukrainian forces could keep holding the city and push Russian troops back farther. If the Ukrainians hold their recent gains, the battles of the last month at Bakhmut could prove a turning point in Ukraine’s defense against Russia, not only stalling the latest Russian offensive but also in setting themselves up to deliver a knockout blow, he said.
Fresh Ukrainian attack brigades were completing training, he said. “We are holding the enemy here for a bit more, and let them knock them back,” he said, referring to the new troops.
On the city’s northern and southern flanks, where Russian troops had tried to encircle Bakhmut in a pincers movement, the Russians were coming up against Ukraine’s most motivated units and no longer had momentum, he said.
“When they try to reinforce their units, to rotate, they are being destroyed at the very start,” he added.
The center of Bakhmut, however, remained a hot spot where Russian troops were still attacking with significant force, the commander said: “All that’s left for them is to try to advance through the city, because the buildings protect them from fire.”
Accounts from Ukrainian soldiers fighting inside the city indicated that Russian troops had concentrated their efforts on advancing through the city center by using heavy artillery and aerial bombardment, demolishing resistance block by block. Some Ukrainian units have taken heavy losses and have had to be rotated out or reinforced by other units.
“This battle is a kind of shooting range with a parallel raining of artillery on us,” one Ukrainian soldier wrote on the Telegram app. “They are dismantling the city. It seems that there was a new wave of assaults on them today from all sides in the north, in the south, in short, while all our positions are holding, it has become extremely difficult here.”
Serhii Filimonov, the commander of an assault company on the northern flank of the city, also described heavy fighting and questioned the value of defending Bakhmut at the cost of some of his best special-operations forces.
Dropping back from the front line to a restaurant in a nearby town, the commander recalled fighting alongside a famous Ukrainian fighter, Dmytro Kotsiubailo, commander of the Da Vinci Wolves Battalion, when he was killed this month in a Russian artillery strike.
Mr. Filimonov, whose company is part of that battalion, and Mr. Kotsiubailo were volunteers who gained renown and built serious fighting units that have now been integrated into the Ukrainian army, specializing in assault.
In early March, Mr. Kotsiubailo, better known by his call sign, Da Vinci, and Mr. Filimonov, his friend, were called on to fend off a Russian advance on the northern flank of Bakhmut that threatened the only asphalt road into the city.
They successfully beat back the Russian troops, clearing three tree lines. When Mr. Filimonov’s unit became pinned down by Russian fire, he said, Da Vinci stormed another tree line and saved them.
The Russians retaliated with withering artillery fire, and three days later, Da Vinci was mortally wounded in the neck and chest by shrapnel from a shell strike. His body was taken to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, where he was buried with full military honors, but Mr. Filimonov was embroiled in holding off more Russian attacks and could not attend.
The Russian artillery was so severe that he suffered a contusion and lost the hearing in one ear, he said, but his unit has held its positions.
“It’s a big loss for our battalion, for Ukraine, for the Armed Forces,” he said of Da Vinci’s death. “It’s hard to overcome the losses. And there are brigades with horrible losses.” Several of those have been rotated out, he said, but the Da Vinci Wolves was still standing.
The Russians had meanwhile stalled, he said, concurring with the commander of the Adam Tactical Group.
“Now they stopped,” Mr. Filimonov said. “We have a strong line. But we need a strong counterattack.”
As some other commanders have noted, there are weaknesses and gaps in the Russian defenses. “The same way they can encircle us, they can also be encircled by us if we pierce their defense at any place,” Mr. Filimonov said.
The Russians realize the danger themselves, he said, and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner private military company, which is doing much of the fighting at Bakhmut, publicly warned of the danger in a video post as he called for more military support for his own forces.
“If Wagner PMC rolls back, then the following situation will happen in history,” he said in early March. “It is clear that the front will crumble. The front will crumble to the Russian borders, or maybe further.”
Colonel Mezhevikin said there were still strong Russian divisions guarding the critical points of defense but that regular Russian army units lacked morale and were easier to break. “It’s easier to fight them. They are running away,” he said.
But Wagner units, which include convicts, were threatened with physical punishment if they retreated, which made them tougher opponents, he said. “They are scared to give up and to leave positions,” he explained. “They prefer to die here.”