A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 30, 2023

How Ukraine Launched Its Successful Comeback In Bakhmut

Ukraine had already made advances in the Bakhmut sector before the Wagner mutiny, but subsequent to that event, has stepped up its attacks as the remaining Russian troops - although plentiful - seem disorganized and demoralized. 

The assaults have led to substantial advances in the city as well as its northern and southern suburbs. JL 

Matthew Luxmoore reports in the Wall Street Journal:

Ukraine is making some of its most significant advances around a city that took Russia 10 months of brutal house-to-house combat to seize. Ukrainian forces, including the 3rd Assault Brigade, are making the most of  confusion following the Wagner rebellion. It has clawed back 18 square miles around the city since mid-May, gaining high ground that makes it harder for Russia to (hold) the city. It is a chance to exhaust Russian units disoriented after Wagner paramilitary fighters launched (their) mutiny. If Ukraine makes further gains here, it could prove a demoralizing blow for the Russians. Five weeks after Russia trumpeted the capture of the small eastern city of Bakhmut, where the longest and bloodiest engagement of the war has played out, Ukrainian troops are clawing back high ground on its northern and southern edges in a bid to encircle Russian troops there.

Soldiers from Ukraine’s 3rd Assault Brigade are posting footage of intense firefights in Russian trenches, with the Ukrainians lobbing grenades into Russian foxholes and taking prisoners. On Monday, the brigade announced the capture of a Russian bridgehead on the western bank of a key canal near Bakhmut.

“We’re slowly moving forward. Not by miles, but bit by bit,” said a platoon commander in the 3rd Assault Brigade, who goes by the callsign Small.

With its counteroffensive in the south largely on hold, Ukraine is making some of its most significant advances around a city that took Russia 10 months of brutal house-to-house combat to seize. It is a chance to exhaust Russian units disoriented after Wagner paramilitary fighters launched a mutiny over the weekend. If Ukraine makes further gains here, it could prove a demoralizing blow for the Russians.

Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin has ridiculed the regular Russian military’s skills in Bakhmut after his men did the bulk of the work to capture it. Before declaring war on the top brass and agreeing to exile himself in Belarus, he predicted significant territorial losses around Bakhmut as his feud with the Defense Ministry spilled over into open revolt.

The aborted rebellion, which saw Wagner seize a city in southern Russia before stopping short of Moscow, has left the future of Russia’s most effective fighting force unclear. If Wagner troops do return to the battlefield in Ukraine, they will likely be under the command of the regular army. Western and Ukrainian officials say Russia is now repositioning troops from the south to bolster the defenses around Bakhmut. Col. Serhiy Cherevaty, spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern military command, said around 50,000 Russian troops are stationed there, with triple that amount in the broader region.

In the meantime, Ukrainian forces, including the 3rd Assault Brigade, are attempting to make the most of the confusion following the Wagner rebellion. Together with other units it has clawed back some 18 square miles of territory around the city since mid-May, according to Cherevaty, gaining high ground that makes it harder for Russia to use the city as a springboard for a bigger westward advance. “We’re gnawing away at every meter of land,” said Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar.

Small, the platoon commander in the 3rd, recounted a recent attack in which his unit, equipped with two U.S.-made M113 armored personnel carriers dating to the Cold War, blazed a trail with artillery and encircled a Russian position in a tree line, killing 15 enemy troops and forcing dozens to flee. They moved forward 800 yards.

Ukrainian commanders have said they haven’t deployed their best-equipped Western-trained brigades yet, but further progress could be slow, at least in Bakhmut. Small said the Russians have adapted their tactics, no longer sending waves of men on near-suicidal assaults but digging in deep and pounding the Ukrainians from a distance with rocket-propelled grenades and mortars.

Russian planes also pose a particular challenge, as much of Ukraine’s limited air defense capacity is engaged far from the front lines defending major cities from aerial bombardment. A Russian missile attack on Tuesday in Kramatorsk, 18 miles from Bakhmut, killed 12 people and wounded at least 60 at a crowded pizza restaurant popular with troops. President Volodymyr Zelensky said a person who helped coordinate the attack has been charged with treason.

“We have no recipe for the aviation targeting us and everything they’re throwing at us from the air,” said an infantryman from the 3rd Assault Brigade who has been involved in assaults to the south of Bakhmut. “In such moments we can only dive for cover, anywhere we can.”

Wagner’s grinding, monthslong offensive to capture Bakhmut was reliant on thousands of convicts from Russian prisons who were promised freedom in exchange for six months’ service in Ukraine. Today, there are new Russian assault units, such as one called Storm Z, that are also formed of prison inmates but now subordinate to the Defense Ministry.

A prison inmate from western Russia who had served three years of a four-year sentence for theft when he joined Storm Z, was captured on the Bakhmut front last week. He told The Wall Street Journal his commanders said refusal to take part in ground attacks on Ukrainian positions would be punishable by death.

“They ordered us to move forward and not to take one step back,” the 22-year-old, who arrived at a facility holding prisoners of war in east Ukraine with a tourniquet still tied around an arm severely swollen from untreated shrapnel wounds, said in an interview in a separate space from his captors. Along the southern flank of Bakhmut, artillery teams of the 3rd Assault Brigade work, sleep and pass time in shallow trenches exposed constantly to enemy fire, waiting for opportunities to wear down Russia’s invasion force with precision strikes.

On a recent morning in a tree line between verdant fields southwest of the city, a unit of the 3rd received coordinates for an enemy target: a small single-axle tractor the Russians were using to deliver ammunition to their firing positions six miles away.

A junior sergeant with the callsign Zeus snatched up his notepad and roused his team from their rest in the dugout. They adjusted the barrel of their American-supplied M119 howitzer and fired a shell with a deafening thud. Then they spotted a drone overhead.

The men hurriedly camouflaged the gun with branches and ran back to the dugout, resuming a routine of vaping, scrolling phones and napping. Their safety depended on not being discovered by the Russians, and it would be some time before the all-clear was given and the target successfully destroyed.

But for every six shells Russia fires, Zeus said, his unit fires two—suffering from the same shortage of manpower and ammunition that has plagued them since the war began.

“Our ammunition is too precious right now,” said the 32-year-old junior sergeant, who had no military experience when he enlisted after Russia’s invasion in February of last year. “Offensive operations are taking a serious toll on the inventory we have.”

For miles to the west of Bakhmut, a vast territory of rolling fields and rural settlements has been transformed by war, with houses missing roofs and the roads torn up. In a forested area between Kostiantynivka and Chasiv Yar, Ukrainian armored personnel carriers and Soviet T-72 tanks stand camouflaged with netting. They are shielded from sight by the canopies of trees, the mud-encrusted feet of sleeping soldiers poking out of their hatches.

The men take daily swims and spend time fishing off a small wooden pier jutting out from a clearing beside a crystal clear lake. A short walk away, a village shop stocks cigarettes and basic food items. Though the soldiers are on a break from active combat, danger is ever-present: Russian Orlan drones circle overhead and artillery pounds the area. Many say their nerves are shot, a mental respite is impossible.

One 39-year-old soldier, who was mobilized six months ago into the 17th Brigade fighting around Bakhmut, said he was desperate to go home and see his wife and 12-year-old son in the city of Kryviy Rih. His unit lost 40 men in the previous week, he said, and it has been unable to recover six of the bodies because they lie in areas of intense fighting.

A constant flow of tanks and armoured personnel carriers drive along the nearby road to Chasiv Yar, billowing thick black smoke. But very little of the Western armor provided to Ukraine for its summer counteroffensive has made it to this part of the front, soldiers say.

Chasiv Yar, the closest town to Bakhmut, had a prewar population of 12,000 and now lies largely demolished. It has turned into a garrison town for Ukrainian soldiers involved in brutal assaults near Bakhmut. Under relentless bombardment, only several hundred residents remain, many of them holding ambivalent views about a Russian takeover.

Vitaliy Melnikov, an infantryman in Ukraine’s 4th Tank Brigade, said he and his fellow soldiers are suspicious of the locals and try not to engage with them. On a recent afternoon, he was resting near a five-story building in Chasiv Yar severely damaged by Russian shelling. An apartment with half its windows blown out served as temporary living quarters for the soldiers.

Melnikov said they help keep each others’ spirits up after months fighting for territory that is likely to be an uninhabitable hellscape by the time the war is over. He said he feels emboldened by his army’s recent advances, but fears for the fate of the towns they retake.

“The Russians’ goal is to destroy everything in their path,” he said. “Bakhmut is in ruins. There’s nothing to take back.”


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