“What do you mean slow?” another snapped back. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” The driver smoked a cigarette as armored vehicles sped by toward the devastated eastern city, where the bloodiest battle of the war is taking place.
Russia has sent hordes of soldiers and mercenaries to capture Bakhmut. These fighters have pushed the Ukrainian troops to the western edge of the city and, like the jaws of an alligator, are closing in from the south and north, aiming to encircle and annihilate them.
The move has cut off virtually all roads except the T0504 highway, a hard two-lane highway that connects to the southwestern edge of Bakhmut and is so vital that troops have dubbed it “the highway of life.”
“It’s the only road left where we can evacuate the wounded, evacuate the dead,” said Major Oleksandr Pantsernyi, commander of the 24th Separate Assault Battalion, one of the units responsible for defending the corridor. Just as important is the role of the highway in sustaining the fighting, he said, by allowing the movement of ammunition, water and fresh troops eastward.
“If we don’t do our job, Bakhmut’s defense will last one or two days,” said Pantsernyi, 26. “And all the people who are there will stay there forever.”
Russian forces also know the importance of the road, the Ukrainian soldiers said, and have tried to smash it with artillery and force their enemy into the mud. Although there is another road that branches off from T0504 and turns northwest out of the city, the soldiers said the road gets too close to enemy lines and indirect fire. Using it, they said without irony, is “Russian roulette.”
On the 24th he has hit Russian positions with old Soviet howitzers and has fought soldiers inside trenches with his fists. The unit also trains at almost every available time. He helped support a massive operation involving thousands of soldiers on Thursday and Friday as machine gun fire and shell explosions raged across coal-strewn hills in the service of a crucial objective: opening the alligator’s jaw.
The laser focus on Bakhmut has drawn skepticism on Both Sides. Russia is intent on seizing it to claim victory after a series of setbacks, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has turned the stubborn defense of the city into a rallying cry.
Although Bakhmut lies along key roads and railways in the Donbas region, control of the city is unlikely to influence the outcome of the war. The benefit to Ukraine from killing waves of Wagner mercenaries and Russian soldiers may not outweigh the cost of its own losses, given that kyiv needs resources for an early spring offensive.
But orders are orders, and the 24th is here to fight until Russia withdraws, or until they are all dead.
A lieutenant with the call sign Hook met up with a platoon of soldiers wielding plastic BB guns to teach them how to assault buildings in the open. Teams of two took cover in the rubble of a chemical factory, then ran to a garage. “Move! Move! Move!” Hook yelled. The soldiers quickened their steps, suppressing the ghost gunmen with bursts of plastic pellets.
Like most of the troops in Ukraine, he and other soldiers interviewed are being identified by their call signs because they were not authorized to release their full names to journalists.
Some troops under Hook’s command have little combat experience, he said, though the battle in and around Bakhmut has provided quick and brutal wisdom. Hook, a 33-year-old former sales manager, constantly analyzes how Wagner’s forces order their attacks and flanking maneuvers, then prepares his men to weave when they weave.
“I love to trick them,” he said, “and make a fool of them.”
But Hook and others in the battalion also expressed frustration over the shortage of ammunition and weapons.
While Western backers proclaim they are sending equipment to Ukraine, soldiers said supply becomes a trickle when equipment is handed out, even at the epicenter of fighting closely watched by senior Ukrainian officials. This has made their task of holding the trail and quelling Russian advances more difficult and risky, they said.
A surveillance drone operator called Aviator said the battle for the skies has come down to commercial equipment that often comes from China. He uses a DJI Mavic 3 drone to scout enemy positions and patch up live video for artillery commanders so they can refine strikes in real time.
The Russians, in turn, have a DJI device that can detect their drone’s flight path and launch location, information used to fire on Ukrainian positions, he said.
Russian troops also man a Chinese-made device that can cut the link between their controls and the drone, Aviator said, forcing it to move closer to enemy positions to maintain a strong signal. That puts him within mortar and sniper range, where he can feel the rumble of organs from shell attacks.
The aviator and other drone operators channel their transmissions to a dimly lit farmhouse turned command post in the Donetsk region. Inside, the soldiers lean their Kalashnikovs against the wall, drink coffee from plastic cups and watch videos on two large-screen TVs.
Chichen, 26, an artillery battery commander, scowling and pierced, constantly switching between his phone, his tablet, and aerial shots of Bakhmut’s apocalyptic landscape, looking to turn more Russian positions into smoking rubble with his suite of four D-30 howitzers.
The Bakhmut battle has taken a toll on unity, he said. Of about two dozen raid operations in the area, only one ended without casualties. The darkest day, he said, involved an operation northeast of the city in the fall that left more than 150 soldiers dead, wounded or missing. “Even if you win, you still lose,” he said. “You walk in knowing it’s going to be hell.”
Compounding the difficulties, he said, was the condition of the artillery pieces, which are twice as old as Chichén, ground down from use and repaired at least 10 times, making them less reliable with each volley.
Then there is the ammunition. Gunnery is a delicate skill, with gunners assessing topography, air pressure, and even weather at the top of the round’s parabolic arc before firing. Another variable, Chichén said, is the fuse and explosives in the projectile, which vary depending on where they are manufactured. The unit has received shells from Pakistan, the Czech Republic and elsewhere, the soldiers said.
And there are not enough shells. At the start of the invasion, Chichen said, he would fire about 300 rounds a day. Now, it’s closer to 10 per day, with far more targets than the ammunition needed to hit them.
But Chichen and his men didn’t dwell too long on the limitations on Friday, nor were they distracted by Tribute to Zelensky of 24 soldiers as heroes of Ukraine. His shells were aimed at the southwestern edge of Bakhmut, where T0504 cut through the city. Drones buzzed through the air, searching for the enemy.
There were clear hiccups during the mission. The drone transmission captured an enemy attack on Ukrainian forces, and soon there were reports of injuries. “Oh, (no)”, cursed a soldier, with the resignation of someone who has seen a moment like this before.
Another explosion appeared on the screen at a house where Russian forces took refuge. The watching soldiers erupted into cheers twice; during the initial hit, and again after a second feed on a delay, he showed a different angle, like a touchdown replay.
A soldier who saw it all, known as Happy for his cheerful demeanor under fire, described the elation. “What better feeling is there,” he asked, “than to kill a Russian?”
One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine
Portraits from Ukraine: The lives of all Ukrainians have changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion a year ago, in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other. in extreme circumstancesin bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined markets. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.
Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has turned from a multi-pronged invasion that included Kiev in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated over a stretch of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between the Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has concentrated..
One year of living apart: The invasion of Russia, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law that prevents men of fighting age from leaving the country, has forced millions of Ukrainian families to make agonizing decisions about how to balance security, duty and love, with lives once intertwined that have become unrecognizable. This is what a train station full of goodbyes It seemed like last year.
Deepening global gaps: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on the issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions have not stopped Russiathanks to its oil and gas exports.