The endless battle for Bakhmut

The endless battle for Bakhmut
A decapitated statue of Russian writer Maxim Gorky in Chasiv Yar. / bne IntelliNews
By Neil Hauer in Chasiv Yar March 8, 2023

The streets of Chasiv Yar, a small town in eastern Ukraine, are nearly deserted. The occasional emergency vehicle or military transport is all that breaks the grey monotony of the setting, trundling down dirt roads choked with the thick mud of the summer thaw. In the near distance, the constant boom of Ukrainian artillery rings out, howitzers hurling their deadly payloads towards the nearby frontline.

Just six or seven kilometres to the east lies Bakhmut, the fortress city that has become a sort of Ukrainian Stalingrad. Of two roads that still connect it to the outside world, one runs through Chasiv Yar, coming within less than a kilometre of Russian positions at one point. Even amidst the incredible violence on the front line of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, nowhere else approaches the brutality of this sector.

Incredibly, civilian life still continues in Chasiv Yar. Of its roughly 15,000 inhabitants before the war, perhaps 1,500 remain, local officials estimate. They spend their days in basements hiding from the shells, emerging only to visit the store or one of the city’s humanitarian aid points.

At one of these aid locations, just a short way from the town’s administrative building, Gennady, a 70-year old local, has come to charge his mobile phone.

“There has been no power in my apartment for one month already,” Gennady says. He and his wife have remained in Chasiv Yar regardless. “At least we have a stove [at home], for heating and cooking. But I need to talk with my brother in Kharkiv, so I come here,” he says.

Outside, volunteers are helping a disabled senior into the aid point. Two workers take the man, his shoeless feet twisted severely as a result of some illness, and carry him into the shelter.

“I live alone,” says Vladimir Skripnyk, the 68-year old disabled man, as he warms his hands inside. “My house was not hit [by shelling], but two shells landed in the yard right beside it. I used to rely on my wife to bring food from the store, but she died two years ago, and everyone else has left. Every day is just waiting for some new bombing to finish us,” Skripnyk says. 

A Russian shell whistles overhead as he finishes speaking, prompting the volunteers outside to duck down as it strikes uncomfortably close nearby.

The battle has drawn closer to Chasiv Yar these past few weeks. As Russian forces have pushed to encircle Bakhmut, they have driven a spearhead forward south of that city, grinding down Ukrainian defenders at great cost. Russian troops now sit at the southern edge of the nearby village of Ivanivske, perhaps five kilometres from Chasiv Yar itself.

Serhii Chaus, the head of Chasiv Yar’s civil-military administration, has seen the battle for Bakhmut himself, visiting the city regularly via the increasingly dangerous supply road there.

“I can describe the situation [in Bakhmut] with two words: stably f***ed,” Chaus says. “Our boys are holding the line, but just barely. [The Russians] attack like insects – one wave after the next without thinking,” he says.

The near-encirclement of Bakhmut has made Chasiv Yar itself all the more important – and dangerous.

“Chasiv Yar is crucial now,” Chaus says. “We have one of the only two roads to Bakhmut, and ours is safer than the north road. Because of that, [Russia] is shelling us heavily. Just yesterday, there were Grad [rocket artillery] salvos on the town all day, almost without pause,” he says.

The months-long battle for Bakhmut, and Kyiv’s decision to continue to commit forces to hold the city, has become a contentious topic between Ukraine’s generals and their foreign allies in recent months.

The city has been in Russia’s crosshairs since the fall of the twin cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk last June. Led by the mercenary Wagner Group, Russian forces began their assault on Bakhmut in August, sustaining massive casualties in the next few months as they confronted entrenched Ukrainian defenders.

But while Russian forces bled hard for every metre of their advance, they still managed to inch forward, attempting to slowly encircle the city from north and south. In January, Russian troops took the town of Soledar, a key defensive position north of Bakhmut. That prompted US officials to begin urging Ukrainian authorities to consider abandoning the city, and retreat to more advantageous positions at the next line of defence further west.

Ukraine’s general staff demurred, deciding to hold the city as it grew into a symbol of Ukraine’s resistance. “No one will surrender Bakhmut,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced on February 3.

But the fight has grown more difficult as Russian forces seize the high ground around the city, Ukrainian casualties have grown, with soldiers reporting dire conditions as the battle continues. Most recently, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin confirmed Washington’s view, stating that Bakhmut has “more symbolic value than strategic” for Ukraine.

Some of the city’s exhausted defenders agree with him. At a gas station in the city of Konstantinivka, Ukrainian soldiers regularly filter through, grabbing coffee and hot dogs on short breaks before they return to Bakhmut. Caked in dirt and blood, their physical appearance alone tells of a difficult fight.

“We have a lot of casualties,” says Oleksiy, a medic who has served in the Ukrainian army for 10 years and is now operating near Bakhmut. “I am performing 30 or 40 battlefield procedures a day, everything from small wounds to deadly ones. I’ve been here [on the Bakhmut front] all winter – it’s been tough,” he says.

Protocol dictates that Oleksiy must focus his attention on those soldiers who have the greatest chance of survival, necessitating heart-rending decisions at times.

“The other day, we picked up a soldier with numerous shrapnel wounds – he had been hit by a shell,” Oleksiy says. “I was trying to patch him up, but he was in terrible condition, and we picked up a couple other [injured] guys just afterwards. I had to follow protocol and focus on them, as they had a better chance of survival. I watched [the first soldier] die in front of me in the ambulance,” he says.

Sam is another soldier, an infantryman active in Bakhmut itself. An American, he served in the US Marine Corps from 1997 to 2012, completing several tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan prior to joining Ukraine’s International Legion last March.

“The fight here is incomparable [to Iraq or Afghanistan],” Sam says. “There, we were mostly worried about IEDs [improvised explosive devices] or maybe the occasional ambush; here, it’s artillery all the time – it’s two real armies with similar capabilities fighting each other,” he says.

He describes the amount of enemy armour as a particular challenge.

“There are so many Russian tanks [in Bakhmut],” Sam says. “The Russians have a tonne of them, and they just keep coming.” Enemy drones are also ubiquitous, spotting for Russian artillery that rain down endlessly on Bakhmut’s ruined buildings, he says.

In Sam’s view, Bakhmut’s symbolic status has grown to such a degree that the city cannot simply be abandoned.

“Bakhmut is like Verdun now,” he says, referencing the French fortress city of World War I. “It has to stand. It can’t fall now, it’s too important, and anyways I think [the Ukrainian high command] has made the decision to hold the city,” Sam says.

For the inhabitants of Chasiv Yar, that will provide a degree of comfort at least, insofar as it keeps Russian forces from focusing on that town for the near future. While Bakhmut stands, Chasiv Yar will continue to serve as a link in the Ukrainian logistics chain – delaying its likely fate as the next stronghold in Ukraine’s defensive line.

Chaus, the civil-military head of the town, sees the echo of history behind the present tragedy.

“In 1920, my grandmother was forced to flee the city of Hulyapole [in Zaporizhzhia oblast] when the Bolsheviks attacked it,” Chaus says. “Now history is repeating itself. The jackals from Moscow have destroyed everything again.”