Kyiv drains Russian troops by doggedly defending Bakhmut in 10-month battle of attrition
By Ian Lovett and Stephen Kalin
May 15, 2023
The Wall Street Journal
KYIV, Ukraine—For months, Ukrainian troops in the eastern city of Bakhmut have been on the defensive, hunkering in basements and inching backward in the face of withering artillery fire and waves of infantry assaults.
Last week, Ukraine launched surprise counterattacks that regained several square miles of land on the western outskirts of the city, easing Russia’s chokehold on critical supply routes.
Russian forces have hit back hard, retaining control of the vast majority of Bakhmut, which has been all but leveled by months of fighting.
But Ukrainian commanders say the recent advances are proof that their strategy—to hold on to the city for as long as possible—is paying off. The goal, they say, has been to engage and exhaust the Russian forces as Ukraine prepares for its own offensive elsewhere. Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said Monday that the Russians had sent additional units to the city’s outskirts following the Ukrainian gains.
“We lured the enemy into a Bakhmut trap,” said Col. Serhiy Cherevatiy, a spokesman for Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine. “The enemy has lost an incredible amount of manpower. We’re continuing to bleed the enemy.”
Kyiv has in days reclaimed territory that it took Russian troops weeks of slogging through mud to seize. Those gains came as warmer weather dried up the ground after months of snow and mud had blocked most movements.
Russia has ramped up its forces in an attempt to flatten the remaining blocks in the west of Bakhmut that are still held by Ukrainian troops.
Roman Trokhymets, a soldier in the 3rd Assault Brigade, which retook territory south of Bakhmut last week, said the landscape—thin tree lines interspersed with fields—offered little cover, making the attack difficult. He worked as a sniper, covering infantry as the brigade assaulted Russian trenches.
“It was endless shelling,” he said. He suffered a concussion several days ago as a result of explosions nearby—one of a number of injuries in his unit. “The operation was a success, but we paid a price,” he said.
The push around Bakhmut hasn’t used any of the troops that Kyiv has been training and holding back for its planned offensive, said Col. Cherevatiy, the Ukrainian military spokesman.
Bakhmut, which had a prewar population of 70,000, has been the Kremlin’s primary target this year.
The cost of its assaults has been high. The White House said last month that Moscow had suffered 100,000 casualties since the start of the year, including 20,000 killed, mainly as a result of the fight for Bakhmut.
Though Kyiv doesn’t release casualty figures, attacking a position is almost always costlier than defending one. Ukrainian casualties have also been heavy, according to medics in the area.
Block by block, Ukrainian forces have lost territory. They now hold only a few small districts in the western part of Bakhmut. Ukrainian soldiers in the city said Russian forces had shelled them nonstop, trying to flatten—or burn down with white phosphorus munitions—any remaining buildings they might take cover in. Waves of infantry attacks one after the next, looking for weak spots.
A 24-year-old Ukrainian sniper who has been fighting in the city for about three weeks said incremental bits of territory were changing hands, but the line of control hadn’t moved much since he had been there. A few days after killing two Russians from one elevated position, he returned to find Russian troops had taken half the building.
He was injured on Friday when a tank round came through a window at him. From a hospital outside the city where he was being treated, medics said he sustained massive blood loss while waiting to be evacuated.
Col. Roman Girshchenko, of the 127th Territorial Defense Brigade, said his troops had begun reinforcing the basements they stay in so they wouldn’t be crushed if the buildings above them collapsed. The intensity of the Russian shelling has increased this week, he said, adding that he believed Moscow’s forces were trying to cut through the city’s center after losing hold of the outskirts.
He said Ukraine’s successes there were a result of the work his unit and others had done to hold the city center.
“We made the enemy focus its reserves on us,” he said, while other Ukrainian forces were deployed to the city’s outskirts.
Earlier in the fight, Ukraine’s losses had led some soldiers, and Western analysts, to question the decision to fight for Bakhmut.
Last week’s counterattacks gave some belief that the tide could now be turning.
Just a week ago, soldiers from Ukraine’s 93rd Mechanized Brigade were questioning why they were still being asked to hold Bakhmut, according to a medic in the unit. The counterattack has boosted morale, he said.
“It gives me hope,” the medic said.
Phillips OBrien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said fighting for the city was a sound strategic choice for Ukraine. If Ukrainian forces had pulled back from the city, he said, the Kremlin might have declared victory and shifted to a defensive posture.
“Ukraine desperately needed to weaken Russia before the counteroffensive,” he said. Drawing Russian forces into the fight for Bakhmut, he said, was aimed not only at weakening them but also at preventing them from training or digging trenches in other parts of Ukraine. “The last thing Ukraine wanted was for the Russians to go on the defensive.”
The Ukrainian counterstrike is exacerbating a feud between the Wagner Group, the paramilitary force that has led the attack on Bakhmut, and the regular Russian military.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner’s founder, blamed the losses his side has suffered in recent days on withdrawals by regular troops. The road Ukraine uses to resupply Bakhmut has been completely freed from Russian assault, he said, and Kyiv has also taken back a reservoir northwest of the city. He has repeatedly complained that the regular Russian military can’t hold Bakhmut’s outskirts.
“The enemy is now able to use this road, and secondly they have taken tactical high ground under which Bakhmut is located,” Mr. Prigozhin said in a video posted to Telegram last week.
A spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry said Friday that Ukrainian forces hadn’t made any breakthroughs but that some troops had taken up new positions to stabilize their defensive lines. On Sunday, Russian state media reported that two colonels had died in fighting around Bakhmut.
Russian forces are also passing out pamphlets, warning troops about a coming large-scale Ukrainian offensive, according to photos shared with The Wall Street Journal by the Ukrainian military.
“The offensive will be unexpected and with 100% probability at night, just like the Nazis did in 1941,” one pamphlet says. “Do not panic!”
Sgt. Trokhymets, from the 3rd Assault Brigade, said spirits in his unit were high, despite casualties.
“The mood is very good,” he said. “It’s been defend, defend, defend for long months. That was very tough. Finally, we’re not on the defensive. You can see the results.”
Nikita Nikolaienko and Ievgeniia Sivorka contributed to this article.