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Russians March on Foot to Advance Yards in Bloody Eastern Ukraine Battle

The Wall Street Journal 12/8/2022 Thomas Grove
© Serhii Korovayny for The Wall Street Journal

BAKHMUT, Ukraine—Oleksander Matviyenko, a junior officer in the Ukrainian army here on one of the most hotly contested front lines of the war, fights off Russian attacks with other defenders nearly every day. But they keep on coming.

“We shoot at them, they send more. It doesn’t end,” said Lt. Matviyenko, 26, a yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flag patched onto his olive-green uniform. “There’s so many of them.”

The battle for Bakhmut has become a bloodbath for both sides as Russia steps up its attempts to take what used to be a quaint, tree-lined city. Ukrainian defense officials said Moscow is losing around 50 soldiers a day to maintain a slow, bruising advance to reach the city’s easternmost gates.

If the Russians break through to take control of Bakhmut, it would open a path to the political and economic centers of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk in the Ukrainian-held portions of the Donbas area, once one of the country’s main industrial regions. Moscow tried to seize the area in a pincer movement in the early days of the war and into the summer. After a lightning offensive, Ukraine regained much of the lost ground. Now, as Russia slowly burns through its artillery stockpiles, defense analysts said, its troops are advancing once again but on tank and foot. This time it is so President Vladimir Putin can tout a rare victory to the Russian people after a succession of withdrawals, most recently in Kherson, giving it outsize importance to the Kremlin, analysts said.

“The costs associated with six months of brutal, grinding, and attrition-based combat around Bakhmut far outweigh any operational advantage that the Russians can obtain from taking Bakhmut,” wrote the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S. defense think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Serhiy Cherevaty, spokesman for the Ukrainian military’s Eastern Group of Forces, said 50-70 Russians were dying a day in the battle.

The fighting has ripped through neighborhoods, reducing outdoor cafes to scrap metal. Trenches slick with mud to the city’s east have invited comparison to the bloodiest fighting of World War I.

In a central residential neighborhood, where mortar shells have chewed through roofs and walls of modest houses, Lt. Matviyenko’s team runs a drone reconnaissance flight. From his hand-held screen relaying images back to nearby artillery units in real-time, Ukrainian soldier Vyktor Yakubovsky spots a new tank position less than 2 miles away to the south and another one farther to the east. Within seconds, Ukrainian artillery booms in the distance.

Russian guns return fire into the city center, which has already been largely destroyed by months of shelling.

“There’s always more of them and they keep pushing harder and harder,” Pvt. Yakubovsky said, standing in the courtyard of an abandoned house, now a temporary position for Ukraine’s drone intelligence unit, Ochi, or Eyes.

Bakhmut was heavily fortified early on in the conflict, making Russia’s task of taking it harder than elsewhere in Donbas.

“Even if the city falls, Ukrainians will pull back to the next line of defense, forcing Russia to fight for another kilometer of land,” said Konrad Muzyka, president of defense-focused Rochan Consulting, based in Poland. 

A Russian prisoner of war who was captured at Bakhmut said his troops would go out daily on missions to try to draw Ukrainian fire, but they weren’t properly covered by their own forces.

He was shot in fighting and taken prisoner on the battlefield. “I only fought for two weeks until I fell,” he said.

The Russian Defense Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Casualties are high on the Ukrainian side as well.

The city’s only military hospital, where injured soldiers are stabilized before being sent for treatment in the nearby city of Druzhkivka, is inundated with casualties, and soldiers fresh from the battlefield wait in the clinic’s dimly lighted corridors.

A 35-year-old soldier said he had only just arrived with his 71st brigade when he fell under enemy artillery the previous night and had to walk from his battlefield position under enemy fire to the hospital.

“I don’t even know what hit us,” he said. “It’s bad out there.”

Russia’s push to encircle Bakhmut has brought surrounding towns under pressure. Russia’s Defense Ministry said its forces have already taken Opytne. In Soledar to the north, their advance has contested Ukraine’s hold on the town, though the Ukrainian military has said it has so far pushed back attacks. In Bakhmut itself, Russians have taken hold of parts of its industrial zone, Ukrainian and Russian military correspondents said. A power plant and the local trash processing center are already under the control of Russia’s paramilitary Wagner group.

The intensity of the fighting stems in part from Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson. This pivotal moment saw Moscow give up the only regional capital it had captured since the invasion began in February.

Russia has already redeployed troops from the southern region around Kherson to the front in Bakhmut, while Ukraine is similarly trying to get more forces to the area, a task that some analysts said could have been complicated by a recent missile strike on the railway network in Kryvyi Rih in the center of the country.

Earlier this week new Ukrainian troops were arriving. A staggered column of T-72 tanks with reactive armor to ward off shrapnel drove into the city. Units of the 58th Brigade, which has been in the city for weeks, were rotating out, and fresher units were coming in from the 71st Brigade. 

As the tanks drove in, some residents waved. Others kept their heads down. 

Of the several thousand residents still left in the city, many said their nerves had been shot by constant shelling, shooting and missile fire that has pummeled the city’s center. Bakhmut’s central covered market has been reduced to a jumble of aluminum. Streets are littered with broken glass, telephone and electric cable dangle and window frames lie randomly on street corners.

Dogs with collars sniffed at piles of trash that lay in piles of small shopping bags.

The center, once a picturesque medley of prerevolutionary architecture and early 20th-century brick buildings, has been bereft of people apart from a few testing their luck in the streets to buy provisions or take care of relatives. On the buildings signs of resistance show: “Bakhmut is Ukraine, Donbas is Ukraine” or “Die Russian scum.”

Not everyone blames the Russians.

Larisa Vladimirovna, 60, said she didn’t leave the city at first because her paralyzed husband needed care. When he died, she said, she asked the neighbors to bury him in the apartment courtyard.

“I wish the Ukrainians would stop shooting, my house is gone, my whole neighborhood is gone,” she said.

Write to Thomas Grove at thomas.grove@wsj.com

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