The battle for Bakhmut is the longest of the war in Ukraine

The battle for Bakhmut is the longest of the war in Ukraine

May 12, 2023

Ukraine’s STALINGRAD: Hand-to-hand bayonet combat, phosphorus bombs and ‘meat waves’ of Russian convicts… The year-long battle for Bakhmut still rages but as when the Nazis exhausted themselves, it could yet be a turning point towards Putin’s defeat

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I still dream of Bakhmut. I’m back in the city centre, embedded with the Ukrainian special forces. Shells are falling all around me; they roar like rolling thunder and explode into a chaos of smoke and jagged metal. Buildings crumble into the earth.

My friend, a commando who goes by the callsign ‘Strangeman’, is shouting to me amid the carnage, but I can’t hear him. Then another shell falls, and everything disappears.

Bakhmut is both a dream and a nightmare. It is a fantasy. This eastern city, just 55 miles from Russian-occupied Donetsk, has no real strategic value, but Vladimir Putin’s forces have been trying to conquer it since July of last year, killing tens of thousands in the process.

The reason? So that this modern-day tsar might make good on his promise to ‘liberate’ all of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

But it is also a dream: of Ukrainian freedom — of the country’s continuing refusal to bow before genocide and of its people’s desire to live in peace.

Ukrainian soldiers fire artillery at Russian positions near Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, on November, 20, 2022

Russian Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of the Wagner Group of mercenaries broadcasts a tirade against Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu accusing the military command of starving his forces of ammunition and supplies, May 4, 2023 near Bakhmut, Ukraine

If Bakhmut was already Hell when I was there earlier this year, it has now descended to the lowest circle. A few days ago, my phone buzzed and a video appeared showing the sky above the city smothered in twinkling lights — it was strangely beautiful. ‘The s***s are using white phosphorus’ read the accompanying message from a Ukrainian friend.

White phosphorus ignites on contact with air; it burns through almost everything.

On the video, I could see office towers smothered in flames. Its use is not prohibited, but it is considered a war crime when targeting civilians and the Russians have seemingly blanketed large parts of the city with it. What makes matters worse is that Moscow has signed the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which bans the use of incendiary weapons designed to catch fire in civilian areas. It no longer even pretends to abide by any sort of rules — even those it has signed up to.

It was merely the latest atrocity to strafe this once-energetic city; and to me, it sums up what has happened across so much of Ukraine.

Bakhmut used to be known for its sparkling wine produced in underground caves. Now, the city sparkles with Russian ordnance as the few remaining civilians cower in cellars and soldiers take cover in underground bunkers.

Victories on the ground have been rare for the Russians since Moscow launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine on February 24 last year.

With the south-eastern city of Kherson now back in Ukrainian hands and the army preparing for a major counter-offensive, the Russians are throwing everything they have at Bakhmut.

My soldier friends know they cannot hold the city for ever. But they are determined to keep resisting.

This week Ukrainian forces are believed to have recaptured an area of nine square kilometres (three square miles), marking their biggest advance in months.

Late on Monday I managed to contact my friend ‘Ivan’, who has been fighting there since the beginning of the year. ‘It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before,’ he said as I heard the familiar sound of shelling in the background.

‘We are fighting street to street now. We are losing many men every day, but we are killing far more of them in return.

Ukraine’s defence ministry released barbaric drone footage on Twitter, saying that the phosphorus attack targeted ‘unoccupied areas of Bakhmut with incendiary ammunition’

Smoke rising from a building in Bakhmut, the site of the heaviest battles with the Russian troops in the Donetsk region, Ukraine

David Patrikarakos saw the devastation and desolation in Bakhmut, Ukraine 

‘The more we hold the Russians here, the more we help our forces elsewhere. Maybe now they will start to take back some of our territory from these b******s; every day here we are weakening them. Even if they eventually take the city, it will have cost them tens of thousands of their soldiers. Really, it will be a defeat for them.’

We are entering the endgame in Bakhmut. The war’s longest battle, it began last July when Russia launched a huge offensive after taking Severodonetsk, the final major Ukrainian city of the Luhansk region. After making initial gains, the Russians met with resolute Ukrainian resistance, which forced them, in the autumn, to switch from artillery to foot soldiers, turning the city into an abattoir.

By November, the Russians had encircled the city. The Ukrainians dug in, and today still hold a small section of Bakhmut, refusing to surrender.

Being in Bakhmut is like stepping into the past. Hundreds of metres of trenches snake around the city. They are perhaps the safest places to be in a place that has been almost totally levelled. When I drove through the centre in a Land Cruiser with two Ukrainian commandos, it was cratered like the surface of the moon.

We weaved across roads sodden with mud and water, listening to the thud of artillery, trying to work out where it might strike next. The previous night, an officer on the base I was staying at, a concrete building that went deep underground, explained the bloody fight here.

PICTURED: David Patrikarakos. This week Ukrainian forces are believed to have recaptured an area of nine square kilometres (three square miles), marking their biggest advance in months

A mortar unit of the Armed Forces of Ukraine firing at enemy positions in the suburbs of Bakhmut town, Donetsk region, Ukraine

‘Sometimes it’s like being in World War I,’ he told me. ‘Two lots of infantries shooting at each other, even bayoneting each other. It’s brutal.’ In Bakhmut, almost anything can be used as a weapon. After we spoke, the officer showed me a vodka bottle with a cloth stuffed into its top. ‘We don’t call it a Molotov cocktail, though,’ he said with a grin. ‘It’s a Ukrainian smoothie! The problem is that when it comes to infantry, the enemy has endless reserves of it.’ He was referring to the private mercenary company, the Wagner Group: a gang of murderers active everywhere from Ukraine to the Middle East to Africa.

As violence has erupted in Sudan, reports have reached me that Wagner has been stoking the civil war there, helping both the Rapid Support Forces of Sudanese General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo and General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the commander of Sudan’s Armed Forces. The quid pro quo is simple: the group provides both sides with arms in exchange for mining concessions that bring millions into its coffers.

Wagner is integral to the Russian strategy in Bakhmut, and it is led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a shaven-headed criminal who spent nine years in prison. With a penchant for violence and a knack for making dirty cash, he has risen to the top of Putin’s court.

Last year, as the Ukrainians began to chew up Russian forces on the ground, Prigozhin visited some of Russia’s worst prisons and offered the inmates a stark deal: join up to fight in Ukraine and if you survive six months you get a pardon. But, he warned them, most of you won’t survive.

He is a thug without conscience who delights in sadism. When it was reported that one recruit had been convicted for the murder and dismemberment of a woman, Prigozhin laughed it off, insisting Wagner would never recruit someone like that because ‘women should be f****d, not dismembered’.

Many of the worst offenders were sent to Bakhmut where their officers force them to charge toward the enemy — often pumped full of drugs — in what my Ukrainian comrades call ‘meat waves’. The soldiers told me that the attacks were draining, but that they could deal with them. ‘It just means our automatic weapons are kept busy,’ one officer told me.

Prigozhin despises the Russian military high command whom he sees as a rival to his own army. He loses no opportunity to attack Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.

Tensions exploded last week when Prigozhin released a video standing in front of what he said were rows of dead Wagner fighters. He claimed they had died because the Russian army was deliberately withholding ammunition from Wagner, implying that he might pull his forces out of the city.

In the video Prigozhin’s brutality and vulgarity were on full display. ‘Shoigu, Gerasimov, where’s the f*****g ammunition?’ he spat into the camera.

Smoke rising from buildings in Bakhmut, the site of the heaviest battles with the Russian troops in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, taken on Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Ukrainian soldiers fire a mortar at Russian positions on the frontline near Bakhmut

Bakhmut is both a dream and a nightmare. It is a fantasy. This eastern city, just 55 miles from Russian-occupied Donetsk, has no real strategic value, but Vladimir Putin’s forces have been trying to conquer it since July of last year, killing tens of thousands in the process

‘You scum sit there in your expensive clubs. Your kids are all getting off on life, recording their little YouTube videos. I will make sure they will bear responsibility for it. These are Wagner lads who died today. The blood is still fresh. They came here as volunteers and are dying so you can sit like fat cats.’

It was a sickening video in more ways than one. Prigozhin cares not one whit for the many men he sends to their deaths. But by threatening to pull out of Bakhmut at such a critical time, he knew the army would have to react, and they did. Prigozhin has since said the ammo is coming, and, chillingly, that his forces had been given permission to ‘act in Bakhmut as we see fit’. More atrocities will follow.

As spring rolls on and the terrain becomes easier to traverse across the South East, the Ukrainians are moving their forces into offensive positions. What military experts call the ‘shaping’ of the battle to come is taking place. The goal is to win back some of the territory Russia has stolen.

But the stakes couldn’t be higher. Kyiv knows that if its forces fail to make substantial gains, the country’s Western allies, who have sunk billions of dollars into the war, might get twitchy.

In some European capitals, talk of compromise is already taking root. President Zelensky knows this. This week, he said the counter-offensive would not begin before further military aid had been delivered. Britain’s pledge of highly effective Storm Shadow cruise missiles, announced by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace on Thursday, is just the sort of thing his soldiers need.

The timing could not be better. Some tell me there is even talk of Ukrainian forces making a dash for Crimea. If that were to fall, it would surely be the end of Putin.

My friend Ivan tells me: ‘We see the Russians up close here. This is all-out war, and they are a danger. Their bombs, their torture, terror, their disrespect for human morality. But they are also terrified to be sent here; their empire is built on fear: of being executed and punished.

‘They are afraid of everything, it is very visible; they cannot admit that they are occupiers, so their motivation is weak. They can die easily from Ukrainian [attacks]. But they can also be shot by their own officers. In Bakhmut, death is everywhere, all the time.’

Shells, bombs, tanks, planes, illegal weapons, urban warfare. Bakhmut has become Ukraine’s Stalingrad. Almost 80 years ago the German Wehrmacht met so much resistance in the Russian city that it was forced to send in troops from across occupied Europe to replace its losses there. It was a turning point in the war and became a rallying cry for the Red Army.

The Ukrainians may lose Bakhmut but it will be an empty, costly victory for the Russians after such a prolonged campaign.

Leading out of Bakhmut is a road that goes to the city of Chasiv Yar just over six miles away. The Ukrainians call it the Road of Life, so vital has it become to getting supplies into Bakhmut, and the dead and wounded out of it.

As I drove out of the city with Strangeman, I looked at the devastation all around me and thought that in its own way Bakhmut has become a symbol of Ukraine’s own Road of Life, which is its continuing resistance, the only path it can take to escape from the Kremlin’s madness.

In this city, shades of grey dissolve into black and white. The fight is a simple one: oppression versus resistance; democracy versus dictatorship; the Ukraine war in microcosm. When I spend time with Ukraine’s soldiers, they always insist on thanking Britain for all its support.

‘God save the King! God bless Boris Johnson!’ they repeat over and over. I tell them that we help not just because it is the right thing to do but because all the world must make a stand against Putin’s madness. Whether we like it or not, this fight concerns us all.

I still dream of Bakhmut, but it is becoming a dream of a different kind. One in which Ukraine might once again be free. As Ivan told me. ‘If I must die here, I will. Even if it’s just so that one day my son won’t have to come back here and do the same.’

  • David Patrikarakos is UnHerd’s foreign correspondent and the author of War In 140 Characters.

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