War’s longest battle exacts high price in ‘heart of Ukraine’

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — In the past, visitors used to browse Bachmuth’s late 19th-century buildings, enjoy strolls in its flower-strewn lakeside park and sip sparkling wines produced in historic underground caves. At that time, this city in eastern Ukraine was a popular tourist destination.

Not anymore. The longest battle of the Russian war this salt and gypsum mines turned the town into a ghost town. Despite bombings, artillery fire and attempts to besiege Bakhmut Russian forces have not conquered it for six months.

But their scorched earth tactics have made it impossible for civilians to live there.

“Right now it’s hell on earth; I can’t find enough words to describe it,” said Petro Voloshenko, a Ukrainian soldier known as Dash on the battlefield, his voice rising from emotion and resentment.

Originally from Kiev, Voloshenko arrived in the area in August when the Russian offensive began and has since celebrated his birthday, Christmas and New Year there.

The 44-year-old woman saw the city, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the Russian border, gradually turning into a land of ruins.. He said that most of the houses have no roof, ceiling, windows and doors, which is unfit for living.

Of the pre-war population of 80,000, only a few thousand remain. They rarely see the light of day as they spend most of their time in basements sheltering from the fierce fighting around them and above. The city constantly vibrates with the muffled sounds of explosions, the whirring of mortars, and the continuous sound of artillery. Every place is a potential target.

Bakhmut is located in Donetsk Oblast, one of four provinces illegally annexed by Russia in the fall, but Moscow controls only half of it. To get the other half, Russian forces have no choice but to go through Bakhmut, which offers the only approach to major Ukrainian-held cities since Ukrainian troops retook Izium in Kharkiv Oblast in September, according to Ukrainian military researcher Mykola Bielieskov. National Institute of Strategic Studies.

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“If these cities are not captured, the Russian army will not be able to fulfill the political task given to it,” Bielieskov said.

Deterioration in Bachmut started in the summer After Russia captured the last major city in neighboring Lugansk Oblast. It then poured in troops and equipment to capture Bakhmut, and Ukraine did the same to defend it. For Russia, the city was a step towards capturing the remaining Ukrainian-held territory in Donetsk.

As Ukraine reclaims territory to the north and south and Russian airstrikes target power plants across the country, the two sides have turned into a grueling standoff from the trenches outside the city. and other infrastructure.

Months of fighting exhausted both armies. According to Voloshenko, in the fall Russia changed its tactics and sent infantry instead of probing the front line mainly with artillery.

The least trained Russians forced the Ukrainians to open fire first and expose the strengths and weaknesses of their defenses, researcher Bielieskov said.

More trained units or mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private Russian military company run by a robber baron millionaire and known for its brutalityto organize the rear guard, Bielieskov said.

Bielieskov said that Ukraine compensates for the lack of heavy equipment with people who are ready to stand to the end.

“Lightly armed, without sufficient artillery support, which cannot always be secured, they stand and hold off attacks for as long as possible,” he said.

The result is that the battle resulted in terrible losses of troops for both Ukraine and Russia. How lethal is not known: neither side is saying.

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“Manpower is less of a Russian problem and, in some ways, more of a Ukrainian problem, because the casualties are painful, but they are often … Ukraine’s best troops,” says Lawrence Friedman, professor emeritus of warfare. He studies at King’s College London.

The Institute for the Study of War recently reported that Wagner’s forces suffered more than 4,100 dead and 10,000 wounded near Bachmut between late November and early December, including more than 1,000 killed. Unable to verify numbers.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the situation in Bakhmut “very difficult” in his last address.

“These are continuous Russian attacks. Constant attempts to breach our defenses,” he said.

Like Mariupol — a port city in the same province that Russia captured after an 82-day siege that eventually descended into a mammoth steel plant where determined Ukrainian fighters fought alongside civilians — Bakhmut took on an almost mythical significance for its defenders.

“Bakhmut has already become a symbol of Ukraine’s invincibility,” Voloshenko said. “Bakhmut is the heart of Ukraine, and the future peace of the cities that are no longer occupied depends on its beat.”

For now, Bakhmut remains entirely under the control of the Ukrainian military, albeit more like a fortress than a place people visit, work or love. In January, the Russians captured the town of Soledar, less than 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) away, but military analysts say their advance is too slow.

“These are the rates of progress that do not allow us to talk about serious offensive actions. This is a slow push at a very high price,” said Bielieskov.

On the Ukrainian side, along the front line, emergency medical units provide emergency care to casualties on the battlefield. Every day between 50 and 170 wounded Ukrainian soldiers pass through just one of several stabilization points along the Donetsk frontline, according to Tetiana Ivanchenko, who has volunteered in eastern Ukraine since the Russian-backed separatist conflict began in 2014.

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After setbacks in Kharkov in the northeast and Kherson province in the south, the Kremlin is eager for any success, even if it means capturing a couple of cities left in ruins. Freedman, an emeritus professor at King’s College London, said the loss of Bakhmut would be a blow to Ukraine and would give Russian forces a tactical advantage, but would not be decisive for the outcome of the war.

Friedman said that Russia would have valued it more if it had been able to capture a populated and intact Bakhmut earlier in the war, but capturing it now would only give its forces options on how to capture more of Donetsk.

The 22-year-old Ukrainian soldier, known as Desiatyi or Tenth, joined the army the day Russia launched a full-scale war in Ukraine. After months spent defending his territory, Bachmut said he had no regrets after losing so many comrades.

“It’s not about comparing prices and losses on both sides. It is about the fact that yes, Ukrainians are dying, but they are dying for a specific purpose,” said Desiatyi, who did not reveal his real name for security reasons.

“Ukraine has no choice but to defend every inch of its land. The country must defend itself, especially now, so zealously, so firmly and so desperately. This will help us to liberate our occupied lands in the future.”


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