NewsBakhmut, the fortress city that resists the bloodiest battle...

Bakhmut, the fortress city that resists the bloodiest battle of the Russian war in Ukraine

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Huddled in her yellow coat, Irina feeds the fire where she prepares food in the middle of the street. “Today we are lucky. I’m going to make goulash, ”she says bitterly. “I only have a piece of meat and few vegetables, but a lot of spices”, she ironically.

The smoke from the wood with which she feeds the bonfire mixes with that of the constant explosions that have plunged Bakhmut into a brown mist, like a small storm in the desert. “Today the Russians are especially pissed off,” Irina, 58, spits out. Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region, once famous for its nearby salt mines and sparkling wines, and even receiving tours from wine-tasting enthusiasts, is today the hottest spot of Russia’s war in Ukraine. The city is the front.

Russian shelling is heard nearby, furious, and a group of soldiers rushes to change position. Two Ukrainian armored cars go at full throttle on a potholed road in the holed center of the city. Twenty-four hours earlier, Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelensky was in some forward positions of the Ukrainian army in the surroundings of this city in Donbas, the eastern territory partially controlled by Russian forces. And the Kremlin’s response to the most audacious visit by the Ukrainian leader on the 300th day of the invasion has unleashed a relentless concert of mortars, Grad, Huracan missiles and artillery fire.

Bakhmut is, Zelensky said, a “hell.” The fierce defense of the town by the Ukrainian army has become another of the symbols of resistance and strength in the country, where the motto “Bajmut resists” is already mythical. “The east resists because Bakhmut is fighting. This is the strength of our morality. In fierce battles and at the cost of many lives, freedom for all of us is defended here”, remarked the Ukrainian president.

The craters left by the missiles and the constant artillery fire mix with the mud and the snowflakes that begin to fall and form a dirty, gray carpet. Hardly a building remains without the scars of a war that has lasted 10 months and has no prospect of ending anytime soon. Of the 70,000 to 80,000 people who lived in Bakhmut before the full-scale invasion, only about 7,000 remain, according to local authorities. Maybe they are even fewer. Most subsist in basements and makeshift shelters, where they live in extremely poor conditions and depend on the humanitarian aid that a few seasoned volunteers bring to the city. A town that was still bubbling in May and that today is littered with trenches on the shoulders and huge anti-tank hedgehog traps.

The body of a man lies at one of the intersections, partially covered with a cloth someone has put over it. He has been in the same spot for several days. No one has come to pick it up yet. Two women hurry across the intersection, on their way to barely refill three jugs of water they are carrying on a cart. They don’t stop to look. There is not a single car and it is not convenient to stay even a minute in the area, shouts one of them, with a wool cap pulled down to the ears and a fur coat. The luxurious black hair —still shiny— in the jacket contrasts with the background landscape, a city in ruins, without electricity, water, gas, heating, or telephone for months.

After the capture in June and July of the cities of Severodonetsk and Lisichansk, in the Lugansk region, and Russia’s greatest victories in Donbas, Kremlin troops began to besiege Sana Bakhmut, which had become the military center for the entire area, with a large hospital where the wounded arrived from various points on the front. The strategy with Bakhmut is the same that Putin used in Lugansk, in Chechen Grozny in the 1990s, in Syria’s Aleppo, between 2015 and 2016, and identical to the one he used in the port city of Mariupol: besiege, bomb and rampage to conquer until resistance is broken. Although the conquest is only of burned foundations. 

Maxim, a veteran artilleryman wearing a balaclava, peers through modern binoculars. In addition to the constant rattle of the bombardments, which make the ground tremble incessantly, and eventually the flight of fighters, the firing pins of small arms can be heard not too far away. There is already street-to-street fighting in the east of the city.

Russia began launching tactical groups and battalions in support of air strikes to encircle Bakhmut. For several weeks it has changed its formula and is sending assault squads with attack tactics, says Serhii Cherevaty, spokesman for the Eastern Group of the Ukrainian army. First, the squads were made up of about 50 men. Now there are about 15 of them. Some are new recruits recently mobilized by Putin in October, poorly trained and worse equipped, according to reports from the Ukrainian army. But many of those squads, says British intelligence, are made up of mercenaries from the Wagner military company, led by the obscure Yevgeni Prigozhin, known as Putin’s chef for his catering businesses and his closeness to the Kremlin, who has recruited dozens of of thousands of prisoners in Russian prisons,

“The Russians have no appreciation for their men,” says the military Maxim. “They are sent here to die like cockroaches, they don’t even get their bodies back. When we neutralize one group, they send another. And so over and over again. And another one”, adds the uniformed man with a bitter gesture. He assures that many of them arrive drugged. So much, he says, that they don’t even feel the rush of battle. Nor the pain.

Bakhmut was called Artemivsk until 2016 by the Bolshevik revolutionary Fyodor Artem Sergueyev, close to Stalin, and had some importance in one of the battles of the 2014 war, in which the Kremlin took refuge behind the pro-Russian separatists who ended up taking control of part of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, which Russia has now absorbed and illegally annexed, no longer hiding behind the secessionist leadership it raised in the area. On the map, in the Kremlin’s total war in Ukraine, Bakhmut does not have excessive geostrategic value, although it is a logistical point for the Ukrainian army and losing it would complicate things to continue pushing the Russian troops and move supplies to different points on the front. 

With his capture, Russia would be able to break that nucleus, but above all it would achieve a small symbolic and psychological victory at a time when setbacks are piling up for the Kremlin. In an unusual move, Putin has admitted that the war — which he continues to call a “special military operation” — is getting complicated and has ordered unlimited funding for the military. “They are suffering disproportionate losses for an army fighting a 21st century war,” says Serhii Cherevaty. In fact, some analysts have compared the bloody Battle of Bakhmut to the trench warfare of World War I.

A Ukrainian soldier perched on a tank watches the road around Bakhmut this Thursday.Maria Sahuquillo

Casualties are huge among Kremlin forces, Ukrainian government says. And many Russian military bodies still lie on the battlefield in the snow and mud. Ukraine, however, is also suffering heavy losses in the struggle for the Bakhmut fortress, as Zelensky has acknowledged. Another reason for his visit to the city, conveniently scheduled before his trip to the United States, where he demanded more military and economic aid to keep the country afloat and continue resisting.

The brown military ambulances trickle out. Outside the city limits, others wait to pick up the wounded and move them to safer areas. Russia has also bombed the hospital and its doctors have had to move to another place. The firefighters, who are holding out in a barracks in the center of Bakhmut, do not come out when the attacks are intense; the Kremlin usually hits twice at the same point. Inside the barracks, the walls rumble from the explosions and a piece of shrapnel has hit the glass of one of the windows, reinforced with sandbags.

On a bench painted blue, in front of the flower beds that were once full of flowers, Liudmila laments between explosions and explosions. “I am 80 years old, I have lived through everything and this is unbearable. We just want it to end,” she says with tears in her eyes. She doesn’t even care what happens to the city anymore. There are more like her, shocked citizens, who walk or look at the horizon as if on automatic pilot. Others, says the soldier Maxim with a shrug, await the arrival of Russian forces in a devastated city.

On the porch of her house, Katya and Kristina, Irina’s daughters, have come out to get some air. The whole family, including Katya’s nine-year-old son, lives in the basement of a building full of cracks, with broken windows and what seems to be covered in cement patches. “Do you know? Life before this war wasn’t very good either, but this is our home after all,” Katya points out with a shrug. The young woman, with her hair perfectly braided and without a coat despite the freezing temperatures, worked as an operator in a nearby metallurgical factory. “The women of this area are strong, resistant. So believe me, they will not break us, ”she emphasizes.

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