In Bakhmout the traces of terrible Russian relentlessness

In Bakhmout the traces of terrible Russian relentlessness

Posted January 2, 2023 at 4:28 PM Updated January 2, 2023 at 5:16 PM

“The situation is difficult but stable,” said Iouri Skala, commander of the eponymous intelligence battalion stationed in the basement of a building in downtown Bakhmout that has been converted into a command post. In this eastern Ukrainian city devastated by months of bombing and fierce fighting, the men of “Skala” conduct reconnaissance and assault missions while correcting the coordinates of artillery fire. Risky but essential tasks carried out with drones while this small town of 70,000 people was subjected to daily attacks by the Russian army and its auxiliaries, particularly the paramilitary group Wagner, for six months.

The strategic importance of Bakhmout is so controversial that pundits and soldiers alike have puzzled over the reasons for Russian intransigence. “Militarily, Bakhmout has no strategic importance,” said Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrsky, commander of the Ukrainian land forces, in early December. But it has a psychological meaning. »

Some speculate that the city’s capture would mark an important victory for Russian businessman Evgueni Prigojine, creator of the Wagner Group. While the latter has become increasingly visible in recent months, a win here would allow it to establish its legitimacy and potentially position itself as Vladimir Putin’s successor. As a testament to the symbolic importance of the site, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy traveled there on December 20 to meet the city’s defenders and personally present them with awards.

An 80% destroyed city

“Every day groups of fifteen or twenty soldiers try to take our positions from the rear east of the city,” explains Leonid, 39, a drone operator in the Skala Battalion in Ukrainian. According to the Dnipro native in eastern Ukraine, the soldiers would be sent “to the butcher shop” to locate the Ukrainian positions, which would then be attacked by artillery. The militants are so close, Leonid explains, that it is difficult for him to determine whether the mortar shells falling on the area are Ukrainian or Russian. “It’s impossible to correct artillery fire unless we’re sure it’s ours. »

The civilian population is bearing the brunt of this relentlessness: more than 80% of the city would have been destroyed by the bombing, and the remaining residents are holed up in basements without access to water, gas and electricity for six months. The sound of artillery and rocket launchers can be heard constantly in the deserted streets. It echoes on the gutted facades of apartment buildings and shops with broken windows. In the parking lot of her downtown apartment building, Ana* is cooking a stew over an open fire while Fyodor* is making firewood. These two Bakhmout residents, both in their fifties, have been living in their basement for months. “Here it bombs every day,” confirms Fjodor. As if to back up her words, Ana gestures at a gaping hole in the asphalt barely ten meters from her improvised kitchen. “When does it end? she asks, suppressing a sob.

local soldiers

“We go out every day to prevent the city from burning down completely,” explains Vyacheslav, nicknamed Slava, a firefighter. With his team and a stray dog ​​they want to shelter, Vyacheslav lives in a barracks in the center of town, equipped with a wood-burning stove, a generator, and a Starlink terminal that connects them to the internet. All his men are from Bakhmout, and all have chosen to stay despite the danger: 11 firefighters have been killed in the Donetsk region since the start of the invasion. Not a minute goes by in Bakhmout without the sound of artillery pieces in the distance.

*First names have been changed at the request of the respondents