Ukrainians in a Hidden Command Post See Bakhmut Going Their Way

Tucked away in the bowels of an anonymous building, well removed from the fighting, a command center running operations in the city of Bakhmut was high-tech and humming. Soldiers monitored video screens with live feeds of destroyed buildings and a cratered battlefield.

Six weeks after coming to help defend Bakhmut, men from the Adam Tactical Group, one of Ukraine’s most effective battle units, were confident they had turned the tide against Russian troops trying to surround and capture it.

“The enemy exhausted all their reserves,” the commander, Col. Yevhen Mezhevikin, 40, said Tuesday, straddling a chair as artillery, air defense and intelligence-gathering teams worked around him.

Through wave after wave of Russian assaults and tenacious Ukrainian defense, Bakhmut has become, for eight months, a central battlefield of Russia’s invasion despite its limited strategic importance.

Russia has lost an extraordinary number of troops in the battle, and Ukraine a great number as well, and as the casualties mount, so does the political symbolism of the city. Kremlin officials have described it as a necessary prize in the campaign to seize Ukraine’s Donbas region. For Ukraine, it has become an important line to hold, both to reduce Russia’s forces and to deprive them of a victory.

But now, Colonel Mezhevikin said, the Russian attacks have slowed and the imminent threat of encirclement has been thwarted. “The density of the attacks was reduced several times,” he said. “Before they could attack in all directions simultaneously and in groups of no less than 20, 30 or 40 people, but little by little it is fading away.”

The commander’s description matched that of Ukraine’s highest-ranking military commander, General Valery Zaluzhnyi, and his commander of ground forces in the east, General Oleksandr Syrsky. Both have said in recent days that the situation in Bakhmut was stabilizing, even with heavy fighting by some Ukrainian units.

Colonel Mezhevikin said he was confident that the Ukrainian forces could continue to hold the city and push back the Russian troops. If the Ukrainians maintain their recent gains, last month’s battles in Bakhmut could be a turning point in Ukraine’s defense against Russia, not only stalling the latest Russian offensive but also preparing to deliver a coup de grace, he said.

New Ukrainian attack brigades were completing their training, he said. “We hold the enemy here for a bit longer, and let them hit them,” he said, referring to the new troops.

On the northern and southern flanks of the city, where Russian troops had tried to encircle Bakhmut in a pincer movement, the Russians were facing Ukraine’s most motivated units and no longer had momentum, he said.

“When they try to reinforce their units, rotate, they are being destroyed from the start,” he added.

However, the center of Bakhmut was still a hot spot where Russian troops kept attacking in significant force, the commander said: “All they have left is to try to advance through the city, because the buildings protect them from the fire “.

Accounts from Ukrainian soldiers fighting inside the city indicated that Russian troops had concentrated their efforts on advancing through the center of the city using heavy artillery and aerial bombardment, demolishing resistance block by block. Some Ukrainian units have suffered heavy losses and have had to be rotated or reinforced by other units.

“This battle is a kind of firing range with a parallel barrage of artillery on us.” a Ukrainian soldier wrote in the Telegram app. “They are dismantling the city. It seems that today there was a new wave of attacks against them from all sides in the north, in the south, in short, while all our positions are holding, it has become extremely difficult here.”

Serhii Filimonov, the commander of an assault company on the city’s northern flank, also described heavy fighting and questioned the value of defending Bakhmut at the cost of some of his best special operations forces.

Returning from the front lines to a restaurant in a nearby town, the commander recalled fighting alongside a famous Ukrainian fighter, Dmytro Kotsiubailo, commander of the Da Vinci Wolf Battalion, when he was killed this month in a Russian artillery attack.

Mr. Filimonov, whose company is part of that battalion, and Mr. Kotsiubailo were volunteers who made a name for themselves and built serious combat units that have now been integrated into the Ukrainian army, specializing in assault.

In early March, Mr. Kotsiubailo, better known by his call sign Da Vinci, and Mr. Filimonov, his friend, were called in to fend off a Russian advance on Bakhmut’s northern flank that threatened the only paved road who entered the city. .

They successfully drove the Russian troops back, clearing three lines of trees. When Mr. Filimonov’s unit was pinned down by Russian fire, he said, Da Vinci broke into another line of trees and saved them.

The Russians responded with withering artillery fire, and three days later da Vinci was fatally wounded in the neck and chest by shrapnel from a shell. His body was taken to the Ukrainian capital, kyiv, where he was buried with full military honors, but Mr. Filimonov was caught up in preventing further Russian attacks and was unable to attend.

The Russian artillery was so severe that he suffered a concussion and lost hearing in one ear, he said, but his unit has held its ground.

“It is a great loss for our battalion, for Ukraine, for the Armed Forces,” he said of Da Vinci’s death. “It is difficult to overcome the losses. And there are brigades with horrible losses.” Several of them have been rotated, he said, but Da Vinci Wolves was still on its feet.

Meanwhile, the Russians had stalled, he said, concurring with the commander of Tactical Group Adam.

“Now they stopped,” Filimonov said. “We have a strong line. But we need a strong counterattack.”

As some other commanders have pointed out, there are weaknesses and gaps in the Russian defenses. “Just as they can surround us, they can also be surrounded by us if we pierce their defense anywhere,” Filimonov said.

The Russians realize the danger themselves, he said, and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the private military company Wagner, which is doing much of the fighting in Bakhmut, publicly warned of the danger in a video post while calling for more support. military for their own forces.

“If Wagner PMC backs down, the next thing in the story will happen,” he said in early March. “It is clear that the front will collapse. The front will collapse to the Russian borders, or perhaps beyond.”

Colonel Mezhevikin said that there were still strong Russian divisions guarding the critical points of defense, but that the regular units of the Russian army lacked morale and were easier to break. “It’s easier to fight them. They are running away,” he said.

But Wagner’s units, which include convicts, were threatened with physical punishment if they retreated, making them tougher opponents, he said. “They are afraid of giving up and leaving positions,” he explained. “They prefer to die here.”

Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting.