The war’s longest battle exacts a heavy price in the ‘heartland of Ukraine’

Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) — It used to be that visitors would browse Bakhmut’s late 19th-century buildings, take a walk in its rose-lined lakeside park and enjoy sparkling wine produced in historic underground caves. That was when this city in eastern Ukraine was a popular tourist destination.

no more. The longest battle of the Russian war This town of salt and gypsum mines has been turned into a ghost town. Despite the shelling and shelling and attempts to surround Bakhmut For six months, Russian troops did not invade it.

But scorched earth tactics made it impossible for civilians to have any semblance of life there.

“It’s hell on earth now; I can’t find enough words to describe it,” said Ukrainian soldier Petro Volushenko, known on the battlefield as Stone.

Volushenko, originally from Kyiv, arrived in the region in August when the Russian offensive began and has since celebrated his birthday, Christmas and New Year there.

The 44-year-old saw the city, which lies about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the Russian border, gradually reduced to a wasteland of rubble.. He pointed out that most of the houses were destroyed without roofs, ceilings, windows or doors, making them uninhabitable.

Of the 80,000 inhabitants before the war, only a few thousand remained. They rarely see the light of day because they spend most of their time in cellars sheltering from the fierce fighting around and above them. The city trembles constantly with the faint sound of explosions, the whizzing of mortars, and the incessant soundtrack of artillery. Anywhere is a potential target.

Bakhmut is located in Donetsk Province, one of four provinces illegally annexed by Russia in the fall — but Moscow only controls half of it. To capture the remaining half, Russian forces have no choice but to pass through Bakhmut, which provides the only approach to larger Ukrainian-held cities since Ukrainian forces recaptured Izyum in Kharkiv Province in September, according to Mykola Beliskov, a Ukraine research fellow. National Institute for Strategic Studies.

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“Without taking these cities, the Russian army will not be able to fulfill the political mission entrusted to it,” Beliskov said.

The decline in Bakhmut began during the summer After Russia captured the last major city in the neighboring province of Luhansk. Then it poured troops and equipment into capturing Bakhmut, and Ukraine did the same to defend it. For Russia, the city was one step closer to its goal of capturing the remaining Ukrainian-held territory in Donetsk.

From the trenches outside the city, both sides dug in for what turned into a grueling standoff as Ukraine returned to its territories to the north and south and Russian air strikes across the country targeted power plants. and other infrastructure.

Months of battle exhausted both armies. Voloshenko said Russia changed tactics in the fall and sent in infantry instead of probing the front line mainly with artillery.

Beliskov, the researcher, said the least trained Russians go first to force the Ukrainians to open fire and expose the strengths and weaknesses of their defense.

More trained or mercenary units of the Wagner Group, a private Russian military company led by a rogue millionaire and known for its brutality.They make up the rear guard, Beliskov said.

Ukraine makes up for its lack of heavy equipment with people willing to stand to the end, Beliskov said.

He said, “They are lightly armed, without adequate artillery support, which cannot always be provided, and hold out and repel attacks for as long as possible.”

The result is that the battle is believed to have resulted in horrific troop losses for both Ukraine and Russia. It is not known how deadly: neither side says.

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said Lawrence Friedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London.

The Institute for the Study of War recently reported that Wagner’s forces saw more than 4,100 killed and 10,000 wounded, including more than 1,000 killed between late November and early December near Bakhmut. It is impossible to verify the numbers.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in a recent speech, described the situation in Bakhmut as “extremely difficult”.

These are continuous Russian aggressions. Constant attempts to breach our defenses,” he said,

Like Mariupol — the port city in the same province that Russia eventually captured after an 82-day siege that eventually culminated in a massive steel mill where determined Ukrainian fighters held out alongside civilians — Bakhmut acquired an almost mythical significance for its defenders.

“Bakhmut has already become a symbol of Ukraine’s invincibility,” Volushenko said. “Bakhmut is the heart of Ukraine, and the future peace of those cities that are no longer under occupation depends on the rhythm with which it beats.”

For now, Bakhmut is still entirely under the control of the Ukrainian military, albeit more as a fortress than a place people visit, work, or love. In January, the Russians captured the town of Solidar, located less than 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) away, but their advance was very slow, according to military analysts.

These are rates of progress that do not allow us to talk about serious offensive actions. “It’s a slow push at a very high price,” Beliskov said.

Along the front line on the Ukrainian side, emergency medical units provide urgent care to the casualties of the battle. Every day, 50 to 170 wounded Ukrainian soldiers pass through just one of several stabilization points along the Donetsk front line, according to Tetyana Ivanchenko, who has volunteered in eastern Ukraine since a Russian-backed separatist conflict erupted there in 2014.

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After setbacks in Kharkiv in the northeast and Kherson province in the south, the Kremlin is hungry for any success, even if it takes a town or two that have been smashed to rubble. Friedman, professor emeritus at King’s College London, said losing Bakhmut would be a blow to Ukraine and would provide tactical advantages for Russian forces, but would not be decisive in the outcome of the war.

It would have been of greater value to Russia had it been able to capture the populated and untouched Bakhmut earlier in the war, said Friedman, but now the capture would give its forces options on how to capture more of Donetsk.

A 22-year-old Ukrainian soldier known as Desiatyi, or the Tenth, joined the army on the day Russia started all-out war in Ukraine. After months spent defending the Bakhmut region, and losing many comrades, he said he had no regrets.

It is not about comparing the price and losses on both sides. “It has to do with the fact that Ukrainians are dying, but they are dying because of a specific goal,” said Desiati, whose real name was not given for security reasons.

Ukraine has no choice but to defend every inch of its territory. The country must defend itself, especially now, so zealously, resolutely, desperately. This is what will help us liberate our occupied lands in the future.”

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