For months the Ukrainian Bakhmuts were on the defensive, sometimes running to underground shelters and sometimes retreating in the face of artillery fire and waves of infantry attacks. Last week, however, Ukraine launched surprise counterattacks that reclaimed several square kilometers of land in the city’s western suburbs, loosening the grip Russia sought on critical supply routes.
Russian forces fought back fiercely, retaining control of the vast majority of Bahmut, which had been nearly leveled by months of fighting.
But Ukrainian commanders say recent developments are proof that their strategy – to hold onto the city as long as possible – is paying off.
What is the goal ? As Wall Street explains in a detailed report, the Ukrainians want the Russian forces to remain there until exhausted, while they themselves prepare their own attack elsewhere. Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said on Monday that the Russians had sent additional units to the outskirts of the city after Ukrainian gains.
The Russians control, but they bleed
“We lured the enemy into the trap of Bakhmut,” said Colonel Serhei Tserevaty, spokesman for Ukrainian forces in the east of the country. “The enemy has lost an incredible amount of manpower. We continue to bleed him.”
For days, kyiv has regained territory that Russian troops had to fight for weeks in the mud to conquer. The gains came as rising temperatures dried out the ground after months of snow and slush that hampered travel.
Russia increased its forces in an attempt to level the remaining territories west of Bakhmut still held by Ukrainian troops.
Roman Trochimetz, a soldier with the 3rd Assault Brigade, which recaptured territory south of Bahamut last week, said the landscape – thin rows of trees scattered across fields – offered little cover, making the difficult offensive. He worked as a sniper, covering infantry as the brigade attacked Russian trenches.
“It was endless shelling,” he said. He suffered a concussion a few days ago following explosions that took place near him.
“The business succeeded, but we paid the price,” he said. The push around Bakhmut did not use any of the troops kyiv is training and retaining for its planned offensive, according to Ukrainian military officials.
Bakhmut, which had a population of 70,000 before the war, has been the Kremlin’s main target this year. The cost of his attacks was high. The White House said last month that Moscow had suffered 100,000 casualties so far this year, including 20,000 dead soldiers fighting for Bakhmut.
Casualties are also estimated to be high on the Ukrainian side, although Kyiv does not publish the number of casualties. However, attacking a position almost always costs more lives than defending.
Ukrainian forces now hold only a few small districts in the western part of Bakhmut. Even that is enough for their purpose: to exhaust the enemy, to make him lose the maximum, before his own big attack.
Ukrainian soldiers in the town said Russian forces were bombarding them relentlessly, trying to level – or burn with white phosphorus ammunition – the remaining buildings in which they could take refuge. Waves of infantry attack one after another, looking for weak points.
A 24-year-old Ukrainian sniper, who has been fighting in the city for about three weeks, said a lot of ground was changing hands, but the line of control hadn’t moved much since he was there. A few days after killing two Russians from a high position, he returned to find that Russian troops had taken over half of the building.
Colonel Roman Gircensko of the 127th Territorial Defense Brigade said his troops have started reinforcing the basements they live in so they won’t collapse if the buildings above them collapse. The intensity of Russian shelling has increased this week, he said, adding that he believed Moscow forces were trying to break through the city center after losing the suburbs.
He said Ukraine’s successes there were the result of the work his unit and others had done to hold the city center. “We forced the enemy to concentrate their reserves on us,” he said, as other Ukrainian forces fanned out on the outskirts of the city.
Earlier in the fight, Ukrainian losses had led some Western soldiers and analysts to question the decision to fight for Bakhmut.
Last week’s counterattacks suggested that things were changing. Just a week ago, soldiers from Ukraine’s 93rd Mechanized Brigade wondered why they were still being asked to hold Bakhmut. But their morale was boosted. The same cannot be said for the situation on the Russian side.