The long battle for Bakhmut isn’t over

By | May 20, 2023

The New York Times reports:

Ukrainian soldiers were waiting for just the right moment to attack. Then they received critical intelligence: Russian mercenaries on the other side of the front line outside Bakhmut were about to rotate out and be replaced by other soldiers.

It was time to go. “We all felt the adrenaline,” said an infantry soldier who identified himself by his call sign, Face, in accordance with military protocols.

Ukrainian soldiers were told to get their kits ready, making sure they had plenty of grenades and full clips of ammunition. “We considered the change of shifts to be the enemy’s biggest weakness,” said Col. Andriy Biletsky, the commander of the brigade.

It was the morning of May 6, the beginning of three days of fighting on the outskirts of Bakhmut that has shifted momentum in the fiercest battle of the war. Soldiers from Ukraine’s 3rd Separate Assault Brigade battled with the Russians across forest belts where the trees rose like scorched matchsticks. They stormed trenches littered with the dead. They followed armored personnel carriers across open fields as the two sides exchanged heavy gunfire.

In the maelstrom of explosions, every yard gained felt like a mile, soldiers said.

But when this three-day clash was over, Ukraine had reclaimed a patch of land about 1.8 miles wide and a mile and a half deep just south of the Ivanivske village, outside Bakhmut.

Though the territory captured was small, the Ukrainians have since built on their success, reclaiming more than 12 square miles to the north and south of the city, according to the military. Those gains represent a striking shift in a place where the Ukrainians had been on the back foot for months, and a potential blow to a Russian war effort that had made Bakhmut the primary strategic prize within its grasp.

But even as Ukrainian forces have fought to take back critical areas around Bakhmut, Russian forces have relentlessly worked for months to occupy the city’s center.

On Saturday, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner paramilitary group, said his mercenaries had seized the remaining ruined blocks of the city itself, blocks they did not already control, a claim the Ukrainians quickly disputed. Even if true, Ukraine’s gains north and south of the city suggest the long battle for Bakhmut would not be over.

Ukrainian and British officials said on Saturday that Moscow was racing to bring in more soldiers to reinforce its lines around the city. Such a redeployment could help Russia reverse recent Ukrainian gains, but it could also benefit Ukraine as it prepares its counteroffensive by weakening Russian forces elsewhere along the front. [Continue reading…]