Bakhmut, the fortress city that resists the bloodiest battle of Russia’s war in Ukraine |  International

Bakhmut, the fortress city that resists the bloodiest battle of Russia’s war in Ukraine | International

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

Russian shelling is heard nearby, furious, and a group of soldiers rush 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 Volodymyr Zelensky was at some forward positions of the Ukrainian army around this city in Donbas, the eastern territory partly 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 missiles, Huracán and artillery fire.

Neighbors of Bajmut warm up at the doors of their homes last Wednesday.
Neighbors of Bajmut warm up at the doors of their homes last Wednesday.Maria Sahuquillo

Bakhmut is, Zelensky said, a “hell.” The fierce defense of the town by the Ukrainian army has become another of the country’s symbols of resistance and strength, 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 miserable conditions and depend on humanitarian aid brought to the city by a few seasoned volunteers. 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.

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After the seizure of the cities of Severodonetsk and Lisichansk in the Lugansk region in June and July, and Russia’s greatest victories in Donbas, Kremlin troops began to viciously besiege 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. Of ruins.

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 by 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, British intelligence says, are made up of mercenaries from the Wagner military company, led by the shadowy Yevgeni Prigozhin, known as Putin’s chef for their business of catering and its closeness to the Kremlin, which has recruited tens of thousands of prisoners from Russian jails, who are sent to the Ukraine for the battle of Bakhmut.

“The Russians have no appreciation for their men,” says the soldier Maxim. “They are sent to die here 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 Sergeyev, close to Stalin, and had some importance in one of the battles of the 2014 war, in which the Kremlin took cover 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 moving supplies to different points on the front. .

With his capture, Russia would be able to break that core, but above all it would achieve a small symbolic and psychological victory at a time when setbacks are accumulating 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 army. “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 guards the road some 4 km from the Bakhmut front on Wednesday.
A Ukrainian soldier perched on a tank guards the road some 4 km from the Bakhmut front on Wednesday.Maria Sahuquillo

Casualties are huge among Kremlin forces, Ukrainian government says. And many Russian military corps still lie on the battlefield in the snow and mud. Ukraine, however, is also suffering heavy losses in the battle 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.

Brown colored military ambulances come out like a trickle. 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 blue-painted bench, in front of the flower beds that were once full of flowers, Liudmila laments between 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 military man 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 entire family, including Katya’s nine-year-old son, lives in the basement of a building full of cracks, broken glass, and what looks like it’s covered in cement patches. “Do you know? Life before this war wasn’t very good either, but this is our home after all,” Katya notes 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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