- Author, Orla Guerin
- Scroll, BBC News in Bakhmut
1 hour ago
Credit, BBC/GOKTAY KORALTAN
Ukrainian troops stubbornly protect Bakhmut amid fierce Russian attacks
“Stay close to the wall. move fast single row. Just a few at a time.”
The short briefing comes from the Ukrainian army escort who takes us to a military base in Bakhmut, a town once famous for sparkling wines and now scarred by fighting.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the city in the east of the country “our fortress”. Russian forces have spent the last six months capturing Bakhmut. Now, Ukraine believes, they have intensified the attack in order to overthrow it ahead of the oneyear anniversary of the invasion.
Following orders, we sped down a road covered in ice and debris with a clear blue sky overhead—an ideal backdrop for Russian drones.
Shortly after we crossed the street, two Russian shells hit behind us. When we turned around we saw black smoke rising and kept running.
Was the bombardment random or aimed at us? We can’t be sure, but everything that moves in Bakhmut is a target, soldier or civilian.
For hours there is no pause in the bombardment. A fighter roars overhead. The nearest Russian troops are only two kilometers away.
Street fighting is breaking out in some areas, but Ukrainian forces are still holding the city despite freezing temperatures and dwindling supplies of ammunition.
“We have a shortage of ammunition of all kinds, especially artillery,” says Captain Mykhailo of the 93rd Mechanized Brigade, codenamed Polyglot.
“We also need encrypted communications equipment from our western allies and some armored vehicles to move troops. But we still managed to assert ourselves. One of the most important lessons of this war is how to fight with limited resources.”
You can get an idea of the ammunition problem when Ukrainian troops attack a Russian position with 60mm mortars. The first round of bombs flies out of the tube with a bang. The second cartridge is not ejected.
There is a hiss of smoke and a “miss” call, prompting the mortar unit to duck for cover. The soldiers tell us that the ammunition came from an old warehouse that was shipped from abroad.
The battle for Bakhmut is a war within a war. Some of the fiercest fighting of the invasion took place here. And now the Russian forces are gaining ground, meter by meter, in handtohand combat. Several waves of mercenaries from the infamous Wagner Group were sent into battle at this location. There are reports of fields full of Russian corpses.
Moscow now effectively controls the two main roads leading into the city, leaving only one secondary route open a narrow supply line.
“They’ve been trying to take the city since July,” says Iryna, spokeswoman for the 93rd Brigade. “The Russians are gradually winning. They have more resources, so they will win if they play the long game. But I can’t say how long it will take.”
“Maybe they’re running out of resources. I really hope so,” adds Iryna.
We went from carefully hidden firing positions to bunkers filled with generators and heated by furnaces. Troops take care to hide any smoke that might give away the base’s location this is part of war management. Among those we meet there is a quiet determination to fight.
“They try to surround us so we can leave the city, but it doesn’t work,” says Ihor, one of the commanders.
“The city is under control. The transport moves, despite constant artillery attacks. Of course we have losses on our side, but we will persevere. We only have one option: continue towards victory.”
There is one alternative: retreat from Bakhmut before it’s too late. But the willingness to do so seems to be low among the defenders of the terrain. “If we have such an order from our headquarters, fine. Order is order,” says Captain Myhailo.
“But what’s the point of holding back all these months when you have to get out of this town? No, we don’t want that.”
He commemorates those who gave their lives for Bakhmut, whom he calls “good and brave men who just love this country”.
And if Bakhmut’s supporters pull out, it would open a way for Russia to push into larger cities in eastern Ukraine like Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.
Moscow has stepped up attacks on other frontline areas in the Donbass region from the east and south. Ukrainian officials say a new Russian offensive is already underway.
The Russian government is running against the clock as it counts down to the oneyear anniversary of the invasion on February 24. “They are crazy about dates and socalled ‘victory days’,” says Mykhailo.
But the battle for Bakhmut could wear the Russians down, says Viktor, a tall, thin Ukrainian commander who has collected Russian magazines and keeps them on a shelf in his bunker.
“They don’t defend, they just attack. And they even take a few meters, but we try to ensure that they encroach on our land as little as possible. We’re holding the enemy here and wearing them down.”
There’s still some life in Bakhmut if you know where to find it.
A burst of heat and light erupts as you go through the door to the “Invincibility Center” while passing crates of donated food. It’s a boxing club turned life support complex where local people can recharge their phones and themselves with hot food and company.
Credit, BBC/GOKTAY KORALTAN
Civilians still live in the ruins of Bakhmut
When we visited the place it was crowded, with older women huddled around a stove and two boys sitting in the boxing ring, glued to the TV screen while playing a war game.
About 5,000 civilians live in Bakhmut without running water or electricity many are old and poor.
“Some are proMoscow. They’re waiting for the Russians,” one Ukrainian murmurs grimly.
Everyone here is fighting their own battle, says Tetiana, a 23yearold psychologist who takes care of her younger siblings at the community center. She is still in Bakhmut because her 86yearold grandmother cannot move and is dependent on her.
“Most people deal with it by praying to God,” says Tetiana.
“Faith helps. Some forget they are human, while others show aggression and start behaving worse than animals.”
Outside, the battle for Bakhmut continues, with another bombing raid as we leave.