For months, the Ukrainian Bakhmuts were on the defensive, sometimes running for dugouts and other times retreating in the face of artillery fire and waves of infantry attacks. Last week, however, Ukraine launched surprise counterattacks that recaptured several square miles of land in the city’s western suburbs, loosening Russia’s coveted grip on critical supply routes.
Russian forces responded fiercely, maintaining control of the vast majority of Bahmut, which has been all but obliterated by months of fighting.
But Ukrainian commanders say recent events are proof that their strategy, to hold the city for as long as possible, is paying off.
What is the OBJETIVE? As Wall Street explains in a detailed report, the Ukrainians want the Russian forces to stay there until they are exhausted, while they themselves prepare for their own attack elsewhere. Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said on Monday that the Russians had sent additional units to the outskirts of the city after Ukrainian gains.
The Russians are in control, but they’re bleeding
“We lured the enemy into the Bakhmut trap,” said Col. Serhei Tserevaty, a spokesman for Ukrainian forces in the east of the country. “The enemy has lost an incredible amount of manpower. We keep bleeding it.”
For days, kyiv has recaptured territory that Russian troops had to fight for weeks in the mud to conquer. Those gains came as rising temperatures dried up the ground after months of snow and sleet that made travel difficult.
Russia has increased its forces in an attempt to level the remaining territories west of Bakhmut still held by Ukrainian troops.
Roman Trochimetz, a soldier with the 3rd Assault Brigade, which recaptured territory south of Bahamut last week, said the landscape — thin rows of trees scattered across fields — offered little cover, making it difficult to push. He worked as a sniper, covering the infantry while the brigade attacked the Russian trenches.
“It was an endless bombardment,” he said. He suffered a concussion several days ago as a result of explosions that occurred near him.
“The business was successful, but we paid a price,” he said. The push around Bakhmut has not used any of the troops kyiv is training and retaining for its planned offensive, according to Ukrainian military officials.
Bakhmut, which had a population of 70,000 before the war, has been the Kremlin’s main target this year. The cost of their attacks was high. The White House said last month that Moscow had suffered 100,000 casualties since the start of the year, including 20,000 dead soldiers fighting for Bakhmut.
Losses are also estimated to be high on the Ukrainian side, although kyiv does not publish the number of casualties. However, attacking a position almost always costs more life than defending.
Ukrainian forces now control only a few small districts in the western part of Bakhmut. Even that is enough for his goal: to exhaust the enemy, make him lose as much as possible, before his own big attack.
Ukrainian soldiers in the town said Russian forces shelled them relentlessly, trying to tear down, or burn with white phosphorous munitions, the remaining buildings in which they could take refuge. Waves of infantry attack one after the other, searching for weak points.
A 24-year-old Ukrainian sniper, who has been fighting in the city for about three weeks, said a lot of land was changing hands, but the line of control hadn’t moved much since he was there. A few days after killing two Russians from an elevated position, he returned to find that Russian troops had taken over half the building.
Colonel Roman Gircensko of the 127th Territorial Defense Brigade said his troops have started reinforcing the basements they live in so they don’t collapse if the buildings above them collapse. The intensity of the Russian shelling increased this week, he said, adding that he believed Moscow’s forces were trying to break through the city center after losing the suburbs.
He said Ukraine’s successes there were the result of the work his unit and others had done to maintain the city center. “We made the enemy concentrate their reserves on us,” he said, as other Ukrainian forces fanned out on the outskirts of the city.
Early in the fight, Ukrainian casualties had led some Western soldiers and analysts to question the decision to fight for Bakhmut.
The counterattacks of the past week made believe that the things are changing. Just a week ago, soldiers from the Ukrainian 93rd Mechanized Brigade were wondering why they were still being asked to hold Bakhmut back. But his morale has risen. The same cannot be said about the situation on the Russian side.