Sunday, 19 May 2024

The Final Blocks: Inside Ukraine’s Bloody Stand for Bakhmut

After 10 months of one of the longest and bloodiest battles in Russia’s war in Ukraine, Ukrainian soldiers are now defending a shrinking half-circle of ruins in a western neighborhood of Bakhmut, only about 20 blocks wide and continually pounded with artillery.

Pushed into this ever-smaller corner of the 16-square-mile city, the Ukrainian army is determined to hunker down and hold out, even as allies have quietly questioned the rationale for fighting block by block, sustaining significant casualties, in a city that is a devastating panorama of damaged buildings and rubble.

Even six weeks ago, Ukraine’s toehold in Bakhmut, site of some of the fiercest urban combat in Europe since World War II, had seemed tenuous and the city close to being encircled, according to recently leaked U.S. intelligence documents. A visit this week to the remaining, battered zone of control, along with interviews with soldiers and commanders, showed that Ukraine had lost ground inside the city, although an access road remained passable, allowing resupply and evacuation of wounded.

In Kyiv’s assessment, holding out in these grim conditions is a strategic imperative, to bog down the Russian Army while Ukraine rearms and retrains its own military for a coming counteroffensive.

“It’s a really tough battle,” said Lt. Col. Pavlo Palisa, commander of the 93rd Mechanized Brigade, the Ukrainian unit that holds most of the urban front line in the fighting inside Bakhmut. He spoke to The New York Times during an interview in a bunker this week, as grime-covered soldiers fresh from the front, carrying rifles and grenade launchers, walked in and out.

“We are helping our other units win time, to get ammunition and weapons and prepare for the counteroffensive,” he said.

But he said that troops in and around the city had also at times run low on ammunition.

The problem, he said, was not bottlenecks along the perilous access road into the city, but general shortages in Ukraine’s military warehouses. His units were short on various ammo, including artillery shells, tank rounds and rocket-propelled grenades.

“For me, as a commander, it’s painful to see how we pay with our lives for the lack of ammunition,” he said. Allies have been slow with deliveries, he said, though the United States and other countries have been scrambling to cut deals with suppliers and militaries the world over. “I’m sorry, but we need our partners to be more rapid,” Colonel Palisa said.

The State of the War

Bakhmut is all but destroyed now, with a deputy defense minister comparing it this week to the war-ravaged Syrian city of Aleppo.

To reach the small pocket that Ukraine still controls, soldiers in armored vehicles hurtled along a single, narrow access road, passing hulks of blown-up and burned trucks that didn’t make it.

Inside the city, an armored car coasted to a stop and soldiers jumped out and ran into a basement, spending as little time as possible in the eerie, dangerous post-apocalyptic cityscape above ground.

Scattered on the streets and courtyards were torn-off branches of trees, chunks of concrete and glass shards from explosions. All of the windows in an apartment block were broken — in one, lime-green curtains fluttered in a gentle breeze on the crystalline, sunny spring day.

The sheer silence of the city was broken every few seconds by a boom or a rattle of small arms, coming from three directions, the north, east and south, just hundreds of yards away.

Ukraine is pursuing a costly strategy to hold out. The military continually deploys small units of soldiers into dire conditions in close-range urban combat, while thousands of others defend the access route from fields and villages to the city’s west.

Ukrainian soldiers who spoke to The Times described fighting in abandoned buildings, basements and trenches cut through parks, under round-the-clock bombardment. They are often close enough to hear Russians talking in nearby buildings.

In a recent episode recounted by Colonel Palisa, the Russians used a tank to shoot a hole in a wall of one apartment block held by the Ukrainians. Russian soldiers then climbed through the hole to fight room by room. “One part was held by the enemy, one part by our troops,” the colonel said of the apartment block.

The Ukrainians decided to rig the building with explosives, dash out and detonate their trap with the Russians still inside, Colonel Palisa said. Soldiers with the 93rd brigade engage in about 15 firefights at close range every day, he said.

Each side claims that the battle for Bakhmut, which has resulted in tens of thousands of casualties over 10 months, has been vital for weakening the other.

Russia has poured waves of prison inmates into near-suicidal assaults in and around Bakhmut, backed up by paratroopers and special forces known as Spetsnaz. On the Ukrainian side, the 93rd has defended most of the urban front since January, along with national guard and border guard troops.

Such street fighting has advantages for Ukraine. As in any urban warfare, the maze of ruins and hiding places forces the more powerful military, in this case Russia’s, to fight on an equal footing, unable to leverage its superiority in heavy weaponry or artillery.

“You can take away the range advantage the attacker wants to have,” said John Spencer, the chair of urban warfare studies at the Modern War Institute at West Point. In this sense, urban warfare, he said, has been called “the great equalizer.”

In urban combat, it is common to deploy an encirclement strategy to starve defending forces of ammunition, as for example the Soviet Union did at Stalingrad, in the largest urban battle in history. But Ukraine has reinforced its supply lines by defending the access route.

The route passes the destroyed village of Ivanivske, where the cherry trees were blooming amid the ruins this week. From there on, every few hundred yards, a burned or blown-up vehicle had been shoved onto the shoulder.

“It’s going to get bumpy,” the driver of a mud-splattered Canadian-supplied armored car warned, before accelerating past a stretch exposed to Russian fire. Soldiers in the car lurched and bounced like shaken dolls.

The passable road means that Russia’s effort to encircle the Ukrainian troops has failed, for now at least, forcing the Russian military to press ahead in the bloody, street-by-street assaults. Losses pile up daily.

The basement bunker, with a wood fire for warmth and a table laid with pickled tomatoes and plastic cups of tea for soldiers, is command central. From a screen, Colonel Palisa watched a drone video showing Russians running into a building, apparently planning an assault from there.

He radioed his artillery unit, which fires from the hills to the west of Bakhmut, using the call sign “Houston,” as if supporting an expedition in space. “Houston, we have a target,” he said. A few moments later, smoke billowed from the building, the drone video showed.

Colonel Palisa, 38, cut short graduate studies at the Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., when Russia invaded Ukraine last year. He returned to fight.

One of the courses he missed, he said, focused on urban combat. It is a shame, he said, given his command now. “I’m doing the best I can,” he said. “We are still here in Bakhmut.”

Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Kramatorsk, Ukraine.

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