Bakhmut is a snow- and mud-covered charnel house. The “impregnable fortress” – as Ukrainian General Alexander Syrsky called it – now looks like an immense expanse of rubble and trenches, which the Russians are trying to encircle from both north and south. Reaching the city is no easy feat. Road T0504, which until seven days ago connected Bakhmut to Kostjantynivka, 25 kilometers further west, is now under constant enemy artillery fire. The only access route consists of an intricate maze of country lanes, made even more treacherous by snow and ice. One has to climb up and down a series of hills, beyond which, gloomy as ghosts, one can see the first buildings on the western outskirts of the city.
On the central vulytsya Myru – which means “Peace Street” – the only sound you hear is that of explosions. Right here, in the basement of a half-destroyed building, a dozen civilians are barricaded. They have no electricity, water or gas, and their cell phones have not worked for weeks now.
“Let my brother know that I’m alive and well,” Alona pleads with us, 80 years old, her face gaunt and flushed from the frost. Across from her, two other elderly people are silently sipping from a bowl of soup. Alona’s brother’s name is Vania and she lives in Dnipro, more than 250 kilometers away from this hellhole: in a trembling voice, the woman dictates his phone number to us, going through every digit by heart. Afterwards she demands a promise from us: “Ty pozvonish’ yemu? You will call him, won’t you?”
On Sunday night, down here, the low was -9 degrees celsius: surviving in these conditions, with no heat and the windows shattered by shrapnel, would be tough even for a 20-year-old. Yet, despite the frost and the bombs, no one seems to have any intention of leaving.
“This is our home, we were born here and we will die here,” the last survivors of vulytsya Myru tell us. But meanwhile, the battle rages on, and the Russians keep coming closer. For days, the center of Bakhmut has been under relentless shelling. Grad rockets, missiles and artillery shells whistle relentlessly over the roofs of houses, then crash with a thunder into the city’s western or eastern suburbs – depending on which side they come from.
The basic rules here are simple and clear: you must always walk close to the walls of the buildings, and as soon as you hear a whistle you must throw yourself to the ground. The most insidious danger is drones: you suddenly notice them buzzing over your head, and then you must take cover immediately, in a basement or inside the doorway of an apartment building. If you don’t – whether you are in uniform or civilian clothes – you risk becoming a target, and the result can be fatal: a new explosion and a new blood stain on the asphalt.
A few hundred meters from the basement of vulytsya Myru, the Ukrainian military has set up a small field hospital. It is manned by a few soldiers, a few nurses and a grizzled-haired former veterinarian: the wounded come and go continuously, day and night. “Gdié russkiye? Where are the Russians?” “Do dvukh kilometrov,” the men in camouflage answer: less than two kilometers away. But their estimate appears somewhat optimistic, because from the windows of vulytsya Myru we could clearly hear shots being fired from light weapons.
According to the latest official information from Kyiv, Putin’s army units have reportedly occupied the eastern outskirts of Bakhmut. To the north, Wagner has reportedly taken control of an industrial plant overlooking the Bakhmutovka River, on whose banks bloody battles are being fought. At the same time, Moscow’s troops are also advancing – albeit slowly – in the southern districts of the city, where some elite units equipped with night and thermal visors are giving Zelensky’s army a hard time.
The pattern, in short, is the same as in Mariupol and Severodonetsk: the Moscow generals aim to encircle the opposing force, crushing it with a classic pincer maneuver. Will they succeed? Most recently, Putin’s media claimed that the Ukrainian army was losing “at least 200 men a day” in Bakhmut, and that the city was “already two-thirds under Russian control.” The only certainty we have is that the second claim is completely false: despite the violent attacks of the besiegers – and the human losses lamented by the defenders, no doubt substantial – the city continues to hold, and its central districts are still firmly in the hands of Kyiv’s troops.
But the Russian offensive in the Donbass is not limited to Bakhmut. These days, Putin’s units are also launching violent assaults in the direction of Siversk – which today represents the farthest northeastern stronghold of the Ukrainian forces – and, most importantly, Chasiv Yar, halfway between Bakhmut and Kostiantynivka. If the latter stronghold were to give way, the “impregnable fortress” would find itself completely isolated, with no escape or supply routes left. And the consequences, exactly one year into this war, would be disastrous.
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