A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jul 12, 2023

Ukrainian Troops Rotate Back To Bakhmut As Russian Defenses Falter

Many of the same Ukrainian units which defended Bakhmut in the the winter and spring are now fighting to retake it from the Russians. 

They know the terrain - and their enemy. This means that Ukrainian casualties are lower than they were earlier in the year and the troops' knowledge and experience helps explain why they are advancing. JL 

Aleksandr Palikot reports in RFE/RL:

Ukrainian forces are set on reclaiming Bakhmut, advancing on the northern and southern flanks of the city to surround it. Many of the soldiers who defended the city are now taking part in the effort to retake it. The fighting, which is pinning down thousands of Russian troops amid Ukrainian pushes elsewhere on the front, is incessant. Their missions are usually carried out overnight because the mostly flat terrain - with abandoned coal mines, slag heaps, and sparse tree cover - offers little protection. Casualties on the Ukrainian side are significantly lower than in fighting in Bakhmut in the winter and spring. Russian artillery shelling is much more limited and selective than before

"I have a photo that was taken in the Klishchiyivka trenches on my birthday last summer, and I want to take a new one by the end of this month," a special forces soldier with the call sign "Frantsuz" -- the Frenchman -- said as he headed for a meeting of his unit in this town in the rear in the Donetsk region, a staging ground for the fighting at the front.

He had been defending Klishchiyivka, a small village on high ground southwest of Bakhmut, before the now ruined city fell to Wagner mercenary fighters and other Russian forces in May after many months of grueling warfare.

Now, about five weeks after Ukraine launched a long-anticipated counteroffensive along the more than 1,000-kilometer front line stretching from the area near Kherson in the south to the Donbas and the Kharkiv region in the east, its forces are setting their sights on reclaiming Bakhmut, which has acquired a symbolic status beyond its strategic value.

Following a monthlong lull in the fighting in this area, Ukrainian forces are advancing on the northern and southern flanks of the city, hoping to surround it to avoid getting embroiled again in street-to-street fighting that could bring them heavy losses.

Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said on July 10 that Ukrainian forces had managed to capture the heights near Bakhmut and were hemming in Russian troops by keeping entrances, exits, and enemy movements around the city in their sights – and targeting them at times.

In a similar statement on the same day, the Ukrainian ground forces commander, General Oleksandr Syrskiy, said Russian forces in Bakhmut were “trapped” and that the city was “now under the fire control of the Defense Forces,” indicting that all points in Bakhmut are in the range of Kyiv’s artillery.

Night Moves

The fighting in the area, which is pinning down thousands of Russian troops amid Ukrainian pushes elsewhere on the front, is almost incessant, with military operations ongoing day and night.

On July 9, Frantsuz said he and other members of his unit had been carrying out missions around Bakhmut for many nights in a row for about a week.

"Our job is to sneak into the gray zone and make a bad day for the Russians," he told RFE/RL, referring to the no-man’s-land between Ukrainian and Russian positions.

Special operations units like his are trying to find weak spots in the Russian defenses, hit targets, and get back out while heavy artillery is pounding the enemy from a distance. Their missions are usually carried out overnight because the mostly flat terrain -- with abandoned coal mines, slag heaps, and sparse tree cover -- offers little protection.

They are also helping infantry to hold positions through the first night after they are retaken in risky daylight assaults across fortified and mined territory that is regularly under fire from Russian helicopters and warplanes.

"We are mirroring what the Russians did in the past," Frantsuz said. He added that the trenches close to Klishchiyivka, which Ukrainian soldiers recently retook, were filled with bodies of Ukrainian soldiers killed in winter and of Russians whom they recently killed.

Soldiers could not remove the bodies because of persistent gunfire from the Russian forces attempting to recover the ground they have recently lost. Moreover, the retreating troops often put grenades under them to make their collection even riskier.

According to a paramedic from the 5th Assault Brigade, who uses the call sign "Aslan" and was stationed first in Bakhmut and then in nearby Chasiv Yar, the number of casualties on the Ukrainian side is significantly lower than in the deadly fighting in defense of Bakhmut in the winter and spring.

Russian artillery shelling is much more limited and selective than before, he told RFE/RL, and thus -- although Russia still has an advantage in artillery rounds -- fewer Ukrainian soldiers wounded by shrapnel arrive at the stabilization point where he works.

In fact, both Chasiv Yar and Ivanivske, which are on the outskirts of Bakhmut, have been razed to the ground. Kostyantynivka and the city of Kramatorsk, farther from the front, are pounded almost daily by Russian bombs and rockets -- including one attack that hit a crowded pizza restaurant on June 27, killing at least 13 people.

Aslan became a paramedic after he was wounded himself. He is determined to continue the fight but said that soldiers who have not been rotated out and have been fighting for over a year are exhausted.

"It's difficult to accept that everything we’ve seen happened for real," he said, referring to the carnage of the long and unsuccessful defense of Bakhmut.

Many of the soldiers who defended the city are now taking part in the effort to retake it. Some speculate that the NATO-trained brigades will go into the fight only after the battlefield is prepared by the troops already deployed in the area.

At the same time, according to military analysts, Russia has not yet used its strategic reserves to repel the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Tens of thousands of soldiers are waiting for the right moment to strike at the positions of the Ukrainian Army.

Taking Bakhmut back could undermine Russian logistics and deliver a big symbolic blow to the Russian military leadership. That’s on top of the damage done when Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose forces were instrumental in Russia’s capture of the city and who has been fiercely critical of Russia's defense minister and General Staff chief, made it to within about 200 kilometers of Moscow in a short-lived mutiny on June 23-24.

Frantsuz, a veteran of the war that Moscow fomented in the Donbas in 2014, when Russia fueled separatism and backed anti-Kyiv forces after the downfall of Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, is convinced that taking back Bakhmut is possible, but won't be easy.

"The West has not supplied us with modern planes and is agonizing over the U.S. decision to give us cluster munitions because it is not arming us for a huge military operation," he said, echoing the concerns and complaints of Ukrainian authorities who say the pace and volume of Western weapons supplies is slowing the counteroffensive.

"They would like to see us as a brave and perfect hero from a Greek epic, but the reality is that war is about killing as many of the enemy as possible, in any way possible," he said.

'We Have To Fight'

According to the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S.-based think tank, some of the Russian forces now operating in the Bakhmut area became known as Storm Z. They are under the control of the Russian Defense Ministry, but like some Wagner fighters, they are said to be recruited from prisons and go into battle after a minimal amount of training, lured by the prospect of payment and release or a reduction of their sentences.

On top of this, the Kremlin-backed leader of Russia’s Chechnya region, Ramzan Kadyrov, claims that Chechen forces have deployed to the Bakhmut area. On his Telegram channel, he published a video in which a man named Apta Alaudinov claims to be among forces near Klishchiyivka. But a local Ukrainian commander, Petro Kuzyk, told RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service that Ukrainian forces have not encountered Chechen forces.

Yevhen Chaban, who serves in a reconnaissance unit of a brigade called Kholodniy Yar, which holds some of the positions in the area, told RFE/RL that the Russian soldiers who took over the defense of Bakhmut after Wagner mercenaries pulled back are plagued by low morale and poor organization.

He claimed that intercepted radio communications indicated the Russian forces were struggling with "worsening logistics and inefficient battlefield medicine" and that "their commanders resort to the internal terror that was characteristic of Wagner troops."

Chaban, a 30-year-old sound engineer before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, signed up with a territorial defense unit in Kyiv a few days after the assault began and later joined the army -- against the advice of his older brother, who has been wounded several times.

"Our armies are technically not that different, but we know what we are fighting for and they don’t know what they are doing here," Chaban said. "We have to fight, and the Russians can go back where they came from. That's why we won't give up."


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