In a bloody battle for Bakhmut, Russian mercenaries search for a token prize

Ukrainian forces fired mortars at a position near Bakhmut, Ukraine, on October 16.
Ukrainian forces fired mortars at a position near Bakhmut, Ukraine, on October 16. (Wojciech Grzedzinski / for The Washington Post)

Suspension

PAKHMUTT, Ukraine – The crash and roar of artillery rarely stops in this eastern Ukrainian city. In the cold and broken houses, residents gather by candlelight and pray that they may be safe in their numbers. On the battlefield, soldiers on both sides die in droves.

While the Ukrainian advance has redrawn the map of the battlefield elsewhere, the front line at Bakhmut, about 10 miles from the Donetsk and Luhansk border, has barely moved in four months of heavy fighting.

Of all the battles in the East, President Volodymyr Zelensky said last week, the “hardest” is here. However, in this struggle for control of a torn city, military experts say that the ambitions of the Russian oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner mercenary group, may have overshadowed all strategic logic.

After a disorganized Russian withdrawal from nearby Izyum, the Battle of Bakhmut was no longer part of any coordinated military operation. Instead, Prigozhin pours waves of Wagner’s mercenaries into battle, and appears to see a political advantage in capturing Bakhmut as military booty while President Vladimir Putin’s regular forces are elsewhere.

Exhausted and well-armed Ukrainian forces are relying on more agile tactics to withstand brutal battle, observing enemy lines with civilian drones while newly appointed engineers pilot customized weapons from pop-up labs in nearby abandoned buildings.

“To be honest, we have to do it,” said Vlad, who oversees the 93rd Brigade’s efforts to revamp drones, anti-tank mines and other weapons so they are more effective. The Russians have soldiers and guns and everything. “We need to be smart,” he said.

The salt-mining town of Bakhmut had a population of 70,000 before the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24. 15,000 people may have remained, but the streets were almost empty as fighting erupted there this week. Weeds strangle wheat fields. Military vehicles sped down the roads pierced by missiles, raising clouds of dust as they drove.

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At the 93rd Brigade’s command post, a drone operator peered over the live broadcast of Russian positions he was sending to him. The soldiers acted quickly, throwing mortars into the barrel and losing them in the sky. Someone wrote “manager” on the drone operator’s chair. He looked down at his tablet screen, waited a second, then nodded, and a wave of delight scattered among the men.

Dima, their 25-year-old leader, said these still seemed like some of the loneliness’s worst days. When darkness enveloped their hideout the night before, Russian forces fired mortars and cluster munitions at them. “It’s not the first time we’ve been shot at, but it’s different now,” Dima said.

After four years in the Ukrainian army, Dima said that the Battle of Bakhmut was among the “most dangerous” he had witnessed.

Fighting raged and reverberated intensely across the city on Wednesday. Air blowing with the sound of shelling. When calm prevailed, the rumble of the wind was the only sound left.

51-year-old businessman Oleksandr had blood drained from his face from a missile strike that smashed his home the night before. He had no clean water to wash. He said he invited his neighbors, a young couple and their daughter, to stay with him in the apartment, thinking they would be safer if they hung together.

He said the parents are now in intensive care, and their 9-year-old daughter Lisa has been evacuated alone to another city.

“I thought our place was safer,” he said frankly. “We were just sitting there. We were drinking tea.”

In a recent analysis, the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, called Prigogine Bakhmut’s efforts “practically irrelevant” after Russia’s loss of Izyum, located 60 miles north.

The report concluded that “the Russian capture of Bakhmut, which is unlikely to occur given that Russian forces had been mired in small surrounding settlements for weeks, would no longer support any greater effort to achieve the original objectives of this phase of the campaign.” Because it would not be supported by an advance from Iseum in the north.”

Nicknamed Putin’s chef because he grew incredibly wealthy from government supply contracts, Prigozhin was a vocal critic of the performance of the regular Russian army in Ukraine. Analysts view his involvement in the Ukraine war as part of his lobbying efforts and possible additional government contracts. There is also speculation among the Russian elite that he aspires to a government position.

Wagner played a major role in the capture of Popasna in May, but suffered heavy losses. According to pro-Kremlin military bloggers, Prigozhin was awarded the nation’s highest honor, the Order of the Hero of Russia, the following month.

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Having long denied any connection to Wagner, who has sent soldiers for hire to Syria, Libya, Mali, Mozambique and Central African Republic, Prigozhin admitted last month that he had set up the group. And in a recently published interview, he claimed that Wagner was carrying out the attack on Bakhmut alone, and described the situation as “difficult.”

For the Ukrainians, Bakhmut’s surrender would give the Russians a massive symbolic victory, and undermine the prevailing narrative that Moscow’s forces are steadily losing ground and Putin’s war is failing. In theory, the capture of Bakhmut would put the Russians a step closer to the larger urban centers of Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, but there is little evidence that the Russians could push them now.

Across four locations in the Bakhmut region, Ukrainian soldiers described how Wagner’s forces appeared to be sometimes used as cannon fodder. “They treat them like single-use soldiers,” said Volodymyr, 24, the commander of a self-propelled artillery unit, while waiting for the observers to call a new target. He said it was usually pedestrians.

“If we bomb those positions, they keep pushing the guys forward over and over again,” said the second soldier. They want to smoke us, and then shoot us with artillery.

From the position of the 93rd Brigade, the drone operators saw the mercenaries stumbling upon the bodies of fallen comrades as they advanced.

A Russian reporter who photographed Wagner’s front-line positions near Bakhmut late last month reported that Prigozhin’s son was fighting there, and interviewed him, without specifying his name.

“Bakhmut is a road to many directions. It is a very important point from a strategic point of view for the Ukrainian forces and for us, another “fighter” He said in the video. “Their team is ready to fight to the end, regardless of losses.”

The extent of Russian losses is unknown, but Ukrainian soldiers interviewed said they estimated it to be significant. “It’s a lot on their part because they don’t treat them like people,” said Misha, a 25-year-old soldier from the 93rd Brigade.

The loss of life in Ukraine is also heavy. Ambulances have been hauling back and forth between Ukrainian firing positions last week, apparently carrying wounded men from the front line.

At a nearby hospital, two soldiers said they brought four members of their unit to the emergency room after a Russian missile attack in Bakhmut, and that all three are in critical condition. Their bloodstained jackets were still in the car. In a video clip taken shortly after the accident, the fourth man is seen howling in pain with his femur fractured at a sickening angle.

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The day before, they said, Russian troops had surrounded another company, and had shot it. “Not even a cut was left of them,” said one of the soldiers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, due to the sensitivity of describing the Ukrainian victims.

For the residents of Bakhmut, there are very few of them left. Missiles bombard the city every day. A civilian doctor tries to patch up the injuries, but the walking wounded often pull shrapnel from their bodies themselves.

Vitaly Kuzmenko, 52, stood on the east bank of the Pakhmotka River this week, staring at a ruined bridge, the roof of which flew away, leaving a large hole in the middle of the distance. To prevent the Russian forces from advancing, the Ukrainians laid anti-tank mines on one side, but those mines never exploded.

Kuzmenko said his house was destroyed in the fighting, and so he was living under the wreckage of an open-air market. He said that his relatives were buried in Bakhmut, and he did not want to leave them.

Kuzmenko, with alcohol on his breath, said he feared the bombing would hit the bridge, set off unexploded mines and then damage nearby civilian homes. He said he drinks every day now to numb the fear and help him sleep.

When four missiles landed on the riverbank moments later, he was barely moving.

Serhii Korolchuk and Wojciech Grzedzinski contributed to this report.

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