KOSTYANTYNIVKA, Ukraine — A lone Russian soldier staggering down a path through an open field suddenly staggers as a burst of gunfire raises the earth around him. He looks back for a second, ready to fly, but then keeps stumbling toward the shots.
“See? He’s not carrying a weapon,” said Yaroslav, a filmmaker in civilian life who now heads a drone reconnaissance unit that filmed the incident.
“He is a digger,” Yaroslav added, referring to one of the unarmed men Russian commanders send into the Ukrainian fire to dig trenches and transport ammunition. In accordance with military protocol, he and other soldiers interviewed for this article only gave their names or military nicknames.
The Russian army has been throwing thousands of men into battle for more than two months in its latest attempt to take the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut and its surroundings. The campaign has been ruthless and enormously costly for both sides, but especially for the Russians, even as they have made little by little progress.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has said that he and his generals they are determined to hold on in Bakhmut, saying the battle is doing a lot to degrade Russia’s forces. And Ukrainian commanders at the front say they feel Russian units are empty and could collapse in the face of a strong Ukrainian counteroffensive that is widely expected in the spring, after promised Western weapons are in place.
Until then, however, they face a relentless opponent who keeps advancing in a grim block-by-block fight on the city front.
“Our task since the beginning of the year: ‘Hold Bakhmut until the beginning of April,’” a Ukrainian shooter, Stas Osman, from the Aidar battalion, wrote in the Telegram messaging app. “The guys drive into the city, but only in armored vehicles. The danger of such a move cannot be overestimated.”
Infantry from the 3rd Assault Brigade has spent the past three months fighting waves of Russian soldiers around Bakhmut, many of them former prisoners recruited by the private military group Wagner. Although the fighting has been deadly, watching the Russians charge to their deaths has also been a psychological shock.
“In the first month every day, five to six times a day, groups of 10 to 15 people were advancing towards our infantry position through the tree line,” said the unit’s media officer, who wears the code name Zmist. “They kill them and come back.”
“Psychologically it is difficult, it is something that is not seen,” he said. “Our guys wonder if they’re on drugs. Otherwise, how can they go to certain death, stepping over the rotting corpses of their colleagues? You can go a little crazy.
Ukrainian reconnaissance units use drones to monitor Russian military movements and help coordinate artillery fire against advancing enemy troops. By spending hours watching reams of video footage from the battlefield, soldiers have been able to study Russia’s methods and tactics, including the use of bulldozers and porters.
“They have a very good separation of duties,” Yaroslav said. “Some just dig, some bring ammunition, some are shooters and attack separately.”
The Russians are very good at digging in, Yaroslav added. As soon as his troops advance, the men with shovels come up behind and dig trenches and bunkers, while others carry ammunition and hide it in holes. “Soon they will have a whole town,” he said.
The Russian strategy is being applied by anti-withdrawal units, Ukrainian commanders say, as video of the soldier stumbling towards Ukrainian weapons appears to show. When he came under fire, Yaroslav noted, the Russian looked back at his own lines. But he did not turn around, Yaroslav added, in all likelihood because Russian soldiers are told they will be shot or imprisoned if they withdraw.
Ukrainian commanders said they had heard such orders from Russian commanders on wiretaps, and even saw them in a document found in the pocket of a dead soldier that warned that the punishment for desertion was execution.
Most of the Russians in the forefront of the battle are recently mobilized troops who have had minimal training, but are good at two things, Yaroslav said: crawling and hiding underground.
“They’ll just crawl,” he said. “Even when there are bullets flying three feet above their heads, they just drag.”
Russian troops often hide in dugouts during the day to avoid detection and sneak up at night, the soldiers said. In one case, Yaroslav said, the Russians pretended to withdraw from forward positions at nightfall. But when Ukrainian troops made a night assault, they discovered the Russians armed and ready in undetected trenches and trenches.
Archaic as the tactics are, they have allowed Russian units to gradually advance, threatening the two roads Ukraine uses to supply its troops inside the city of Bakhmut: T0504, a paved road through the suburb of Ivanivske, and O0506, a smaller country road through Khromove to Chasiv Yar.
In February, the Russians nearly achieved their goal of encircling Bakhmut. The troops advanced in a pincer movement, attacking from the southwest and northeast, sometimes reaching both paths.
In a sign of how close the Russian troops came, on February 2 the Ukrainians blew up a bridge on the T0504 road when the Russians seized part of the road from the south. In late February, they destroyed a bridge on the Chasiv Yar road to stop the Russian advance from the north.
Had Russian forces captured the main highway, their troops could have bypassed Bakhmut and rapidly advanced to the industrial city of Kostyantinivka, Ukrainian commanders and officials said.
“Bajmut is here, but next to it there is a chain of cities,” explained Mariana Bezuhla, deputy head of the Parliamentary Security Committee, in an interview in the city of Kramatorsk. “Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, Druzhkivka and Kostyantynivka, all those cities, hundreds of thousands of people.”
In mid-February, Ukrainian assault units began a series of concentrated attacks to push the Russians back from the T0504 road. The assault came just in time, and the Russian troops began to approach the Chasiv Yar road as well. More troops were brought up to repel Russian advances there.
Meanwhile, the fighting was intensifying inside the city.
Ms. Bezuhla traveled to Bakhmut under the cover of darkness last week. “The city is destroyed,” she said. “I was in Bakhmut about three weeks ago, and even since then the difference was very big.”
She said that the noise of the fight was constant. “It’s under constant attack when you’re in Bakhmut. There are permanent street fights and planes, and it’s scary, because the planes are not ours.”
The fighting has moved from the small private houses on the east side of the city, across the river, to the multi-story residential blocks in the center. When they met resistance, Russian troops simply demolished block after block with artillery, said Mamuka Mamulashvili, commander of the Georgian Legion, a group of Georgian and international soldiers whose units were fighting inside the city.
“The artillery is pushing us back,” he said. “They are erasing entire blocks.”
A war veteran, Yevhen Dykyi, interviewed on a regional program Ukrainian First Western TV channel quoted a friend who had just returned from Bakhmut: “Finally, I escaped hell.”
“This hell is hand-to-hand combat,” Dykyi said. “When you see the face of the enemy. When they throw grenades at the windows of others, when the fight is in private houses, and one house is ours and the next is theirs”.
Fighting in the ruins of high-rise buildings wasn’t any easier, he said. “One ticket can be ours, one ticket is theirs.”
He quoted another of his friends who was fighting in Bakhmut: “We are tired not so much of the fights, but of the emotional changes. Within a minute we are in the mood that ‘All of us will die heroically now and there is no way out’. Another minute we’re in the mood: ‘Now we’ll break them, we’ll push them away. And these moods change several times a day.”
Bakhmut was a meat grinder for both sides, Dykyi said. But she insisted that Ukraine should keep the city to thwart Russia. “She’s very sensitive to symbolic things, symbolic defeats, symbolic victories,” she said of Russia. “And Bakhmut is a symbolic city for them.”
“This amount of Russian losses has not yet caused an explosion in Russian society, but it resonates a lot within the Russian military,” he added. “And the longer these crazy losses continue, unjustified in the opinion of low- and middle-rank soldiers, the lower the morale of the Russian army will be at the time of our counteroffensive.”
Oleksandr Chubko and Evelina Riabenko contributed to this reporting.