Posted on January 2, 2023, 4:28 PM
“The situation is difficult but stable,” said Iouri Skala, commander of the eponymous intelligence battalion, stationed in the basement of a building in central Bakhmout converted into a command post. In this eastern Ukrainian city, devastated by months of bombing and fierce fighting, the men of “Skala” carry out reconnaissance and assault missions, while correcting the coordinates of artillery fire. Risky but essential tasks carried out with drones, while this small town of 70,000 inhabitants has been subject for six months to daily attacks by the Russian army and its auxiliaries, in particular the Wagner paramilitary group.
Bakhmout’s strategic importance is so debatable that experts and military alike wonder why Russia is ruthless. “Militarily, Bakhmout is of no strategic importance,” Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrsky, commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, declared in early December. But it has psychological importance.
Some speculate that the capture of the city would constitute an important victory for Russian businessman Evgueni Prigojine, creator of the Wagner group. While the latter has become increasingly visible in recent months, a victory in Bakhmout would allow him to establish his legitimacy and potentially position himself as Vladimir Putin’s successor. Proof of Bakhmout’s symbolic importance, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was there on December 20 to meet the city’s defenders and personally present them with decorations.
A city 80% destroyed
“Every day, groups of fifteen or twenty soldiers try to take our positions from the rear, east of the city,” explains Leonid, 39, a Ukrainian drone operator with the Skala battalion. According to this native of Dnipro, in eastern Ukraine, soldiers would be sent “into the carnage” to locate Ukrainian positions being targeted by artillery. The fighters are so close, Leonid explains, that it is difficult for him to determine whether the mortars falling in the area are Ukrainian or Russian. “It is impossible to correct artillery fire if we are not sure that it is ours. »
The civilian population suffers the brunt of this relentlessness: more than 80% of the city would have been destroyed by bombing, and the remaining inhabitants are cloistered in cellars, deprived of access to water, gas and electricity for six months. In the deserted streets of Bakhmout, the sound of artillery and rocket launchers resounds constantly. It resounds from the gutted facades of apartment buildings and shops with broken windows. In the parking lot of her downtown building, Ana* cooks a stew over an open fire, while Fyodor* prepares firewood. These two Bakhmout residents, both in their fifties, have been living in their basement for months. “It pumps every day here,” confirms Fyodor. As if to confirm her words, Ana gestures to a gaping hole in the asphalt, located just ten meters from the makeshift kitchen. “When will this end?” she asks, stifling a sob.
“We go out every day to prevent the city from burning down completely,” explains Vyacheslav, known as Slava, a firefighter in Bakhmout. With his team and a stray dog they decided to shelter, Vyacheslav lives in a barracks in the center of the city, equipped with a wood stove, generator and Starlink terminal, to connect to the internet. All of his men are from Bakhmout and they all chose to stay despite the danger: 11 firefighters have been killed in the Donetsk region since the invasion began. In Bakhmout, not a minute goes by without the sound of artillery resounding in the distance.
* First names have been changed at the request of respondents