‘Approaching. Move In.’ How Ukraine Reversed the Momentum in Bakhmut

Ukrainian soldiers waited for the right moment to attack. They then received critical intelligence: Russian mercenaries on the other side of the front line outside Bakhmut were about to leave and be replaced by other soldiers.

It was time to go. “We all feel the adrenaline,” said an infantryman who identified himself by his call sign, Face, in accordance with military protocols.

Ukrainian soldiers were told to prepare their equipment, making sure they had plenty of grenades and full magazines of ammunition. “We consider shift changing to be the enemy’s biggest weakness,” said Colonel Andriy Biletsky, the brigade commander.

It was the morning of May 6, the start of three days of fighting on the outskirts of Bakhmut that has turned the tide into the fiercest battle of the war. Soldiers from Ukraine’s 3rd Separate Assault Brigade fought the Russians through belts of forest where trees stood up like scorched matchsticks. They assaulted trenches full of dead. They followed armored personnel carriers across open fields as the two sides exchanged heavy fire.

In the maelstrom of explosions, every meter gained felt like a mile, the soldiers said.

But by the time this three-day standoff ended, Ukraine had claimed a piece of land about 1.8 miles wide and a mile and a half deep just south of the village of Ivanivske, on the outskirts of Bakhmut.

Although the territory captured was small, the Ukrainians have built on their success ever since, claiming more than 12 square miles north and south of the city, according to the military. Those gains represent a stunning reversal of fortune in a place where the Ukrainians had been on the defensive for months, and a blow to a Russian war effort that had made Bakhmut the main strategic prize within its grasp.

Ukrainian and British officials said on Saturday that Moscow was rushing to bring in more soldiers to reinforce its lines around the city. Such a redeployment could help Russia reverse Ukraine’s recent gains, but it could also benefit Ukraine as it prepares its counteroffensive by weakening Russian forces on other parts of the front.

This account of the three-day standoff outside Bakhmut is based on an extended interview with Colonel Biletsky near the front lines, soldiers who took part in the assault, real-time video taken by those soldiers on body cameras, and longer videos of the brigade. released later.

Russian military bloggers have reported the withdrawal in this sector, and military analysts have confirmed the location of the battlefield footage.

Colonel Biletsky said that dozens of Russians were killed on the last day of the battle alone, and that more were taken prisoner. His brigade also lost soldiers over the course of three days, he said. Neither Ukraine nor Russia publish accurate casualty counts.

The 3rd Separate Assault Brigade, which was formally established in the fall, was sent to Bakhmut this winter to help secure the only remaining road into the city, after Russian forces nearly cut it off.

It is led by Colonel Biletsky, a former ultranationalist politician and co-founder of the Azov regiment, a group that was part of Ukraine’s national guard before the war and is now integrated into the country’s military, with little or no political inclination.

The number of Ukrainian units engaged in fighting around Bakhmut is being kept secret for operational security reasons, but the Ukrainian military said dozens of clashes were now taking place every day with units from a constellation of brigades. The 3rd Separate Assault Brigade said Thursday that its soldiers had advanced about half a mile further and would continue to try to advance on Friday.

No two battles in war are identical. They are shaped by the contours of the land, the strength of the opposing forces, the weapons available, the weather, and a host of other factors. The fighting outside Ivanivske offers only a small window into the raging fighting in and around Bakhmut, where Russian forces continue to wage a scorched-earth campaign inside the city limits.

But the three-day battle provides a telling example of how Ukraine hopes to exploit the very public divisions between the three main Russian forces fighting in Bakhmut: the Wagner private military company loyal to Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the Chechen militias loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov and the regular army.

It’s also a reminder that retaking land from a well-entrenched enemy is a brutal affair fought up close. “You need to understand the cost of this advance,” Hanna Maliar, deputy defense minister, said Friday. “It is extremely difficult to carry out combat tasks there, because the enemy has concentrated a large amount of their efforts.”

Colonel Biletsky dismissed notions that the Russians were ill-equipped as “more TikTok propaganda than reality.”

“The enemy is ready,” he said. “They are well equipped personally, armed, have means of communication, good armored vehicles and a very good UAV system.”

Ukrainian fighters control only a small corner within the Bakhmut city limits, about the size of Central Park, according to Russian and Ukrainian soldiers and officials. They are being attacked in frontal assaults and shelled by artillery from Russian positions on the high hills flanking the ruins.

The only way to relieve the pressure, Ukrainian officials said, was to drive the Russians out of positions around the city.

“Task number one was to push the enemy back on the flanks of Bakhmut,” Colonel Biletsky said. “We use three types of maneuvers: infiltration, frontal attack, and turning movement.”

When Ukrainian commanders noticed the Russians rotating in new units, replacing Wagner’s mercenary fighters with soldiers from Russia’s 72nd Separate Motor Rifle Brigade, they decided to try to take the other side by surprise.

“We attacked as quickly as possible, immediately trying to advance behind the enemy’s front line,” Colonel Biletsky said.

Before dawn on May 6, the unit commanders met and received their orders: to cross a distance of about 500 meters from the Russian front line southwest of the village of Ivanivske to the second Russian line of defense. And do it quietly.

This would allow them to bypass the enemy’s main defensive positions and force the Russians to move their own positions to meet the threat.

To maintain the element of surprise, the Ukrainians decided not to use artillery. The infantrymen trailing the armored vehicles moved quickly to cover the burned ground, the threat of detection by Russian drones an ever-present risk.

Once the Ukrainian soldiers reached the second line of trenches, the Russians realized what was happening and the fighting was intense and chaotic. Soldiers described having to move quickly to storm trenches, turning corners even when they weren’t sure what they would find, and often coming face to face with the opposite side. They also had to clear the Russian positions now to their backs.

But by the end of the first day, they held the flank.

Then they waited.

Colonel Biletsky said that they wanted the Russians to believe that the small flank advance was the objective of the operation, so they did not attempt to advance on the second day. Instead, the soldiers carried out reconnaissance and artillery strikes aimed at enemy reserves trying to approach.

In the quiet hours, they talked, ate, and played sinister jokes.

“Who were you before the war?” one soldier asks another in a video shared by the brigade. “A firefighter,” the other soldier replies. “He used to save people, but now he kills them.”

Fighting resumed on the third day at 5 am.

The New York Times saw video footage that the Ukrainian military said was taken by soldiers in battle that day and confirmed their location. It shows armored vehicles breaking into the first line of defense under a hail of gunfire. The foot soldiers jump and fire as they exit the vehicle.

“Go around to the left side, you’re the first,” orders a soldier in a video. “Go!”

At this point, the soldiers said, the only way to eliminate the Russians was to go trench after bloody trench, not knowing if the Russians had fled, were hiding, or were fighting on.

“That’s coming! Moving!” yells a soldier as they storm a Russian shelter. Something explodes near the Ukrainians. “Go! Come back!” another soldier yells.

The Ukrainians then approach the Russian shelter again and throw a grenade, and it goes silent, according to video footage.

After clearing the first line, a defensive network that stretches over an area about two miles wide, they had to eliminate the second line, where even more Russians were located, according to the soldiers and the commander.

It went like that for hours, they said. Videos taken by Ukrainian soldiers appear to show trenches filled with dead Russian soldiers.

By the end of the third day, they had the surviving Russians surrounded.

“Our guys were yelling at them to surrender,” said the soldier named Face. Some laid down their arms. Others fled. Still others fought and were killed.

Face was towing a damaged Ukrainian armored vehicle from the battlefield, smiling as he stopped for coffee a day after the fighting ended.

He was very happy that the Ukrainians came away with far fewer dead soldiers.

“According to military doctrine, the army that counterattacks has more casualties,” he said. “But that’s not true. We have the opposite. We have losses, but they many times more losses.

Natalia Novosolova and Anastasia Kuznietsova contributed research.