Shifting Strategy, Ukraine Goes Toe to Toe With Russia in Bakhmut

BAKHMUT, Ukraine — It was midmorning last Friday when the camera of a Ukrainian drone zoomed in on a Russian soldier moving furtively among trees on the edge of town. Another enemy assault was underway in Bakhmut.

The drone pilot marked coordinates as he watched, then sent them by satellite link to artillery commanders.

Within a few minutes, Ukrainian artillery units struck the houses where they had seen the Russians taking cover. Smoke from the hits could be seen rising silently on the drone operator’s screen.

Later that day, however, an armored vehicle rumbled out of an eastern neighborhood carrying wounded Ukrainian soldiers toward a stabilization point in the city’s west. Ukraine’s army was taking its hits, too.

It’s a grim stalemate that has taken on the rhythms of a heavyweight title bout, with each side going toe to toe in one of the longest-running battles of the war. That stands in contrast to Ukraine’s strategy elsewhere along the front line, where it succeeded by avoiding direct confrontations, relying instead on nimble maneuvers, deception and Western-provided long-range weapons to force Russian retreats.

In an earlier phase of the war, Ukraine’s leadership had been more equivocal about pitched battles like Bakhmut. President Volodymyr Zelensky, in a rare moment of public self-doubt, mulled then whether the deaths of about 100 Ukrainian soldiers per day in Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk were worth the fight for two already ruined cities.

But this time, there has been no second-guessing. And new research suggests the lethal urban combat last summer was not as senseless as it might have seemed at the time.

An analysis by two leading military analysts published last month by the Foreign Policy Research Institute vindicated the attritional fighting. The pitched battle weakened the Russian Army enough for two Ukrainian counterattacks in the fall to succeed, wrote the analysts, Rob Lee and Michael Kofman. Those offensives, in the Kharkiv region in the north and Kherson in the south, delivered two of the most embarrassing defeats of the war to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

“The amount of ammunition Russia expended and the casualties they took set up the Russian Army for failure,” Mr. Lee said in an interview.

Whether Bakhmut winds up playing a similar role ahead of expected spring offensives by Ukraine depends on many variables, he said, including how many soldiers Russia can field after a mobilization this past fall and the ratio of contractors to regular army soldiers Russia is losing around Bakhmut.

Fierce fighting continued to rage on Monday along the front line that extends from Bakhmut northeast toward the city of Soledar, with the Russians claiming to have taken a nearby village and Ukraine saying that it had repelled Russian attempts to storm Soledar itself.

Viewed from the sky, on the monitor of a drone pilot, Bakhmut slides silently by in sepia hues of brown mud roads, gray rubble of homes and white smoke rising from fires. The stalemate has transformed a swath of ruins and mangled, muddy fields on the city’s eastern rim into scenes reminiscent of World War I: Shell craters are ubiquitous, and the abandoned bodies of Russian soldiers lie about, with Ukrainian troops often complaining of the stink.

“It’s a place like Verdun in the First World War, where each side is trying to bleed out the other,” Lt. Gen. Frederick B. Hodges, the former American commanding general in Europe, said of the battle of Bakhmut, now in its sixth month.

A drone overflight of the wasteland on Thursday recorded a typical scene: two Russian bodies lying on the battlefield beside an artillery crater. “It looks like apocalypse,” Pvt. Oleksiy Kondakov, a Ukrainian soldier who rotated out of Bakhmut last month, said of the area.

Inside the city, few civilians remain, most on the less heavily damaged western bank of the small river that divides Bakhmut, the Bakhmutovka. The eastern neighborhoods are panoramas of collapsed and burned houses.

Soldiers settle into a familiar routine. Last Friday, a team of Ukrainians careened down a muddy street in a sport utility vehicle, wheeled into a courtyard and piled out, standing next to a wall with rifles ready, just as they do most days.

Inside the relative safety of a ruined building, one soldier set about unspooling cable for a satellite link. Another unpacked a drone. They exchanged pleasantries with another unit that happened to be using the same devastated building that day, sharing tea with them and ignoring the booms and rattle of gunfire outside.

In czarist times, the city was a trading hub in eastern Ukraine and a center of salt mining. The Soviet authorities renamed it Artyomovsk, after a Bolshevik who helped quash a short-lived Ukrainian independent republic in the early 1920s. Before Russia’s invasion, it was home to red brick merchant houses and universities, nestled between rolling, grassy hills in the eastern Donbas region.

Today, about 7,000 people remain of the city’s prewar population of about 100,000, according to Tetiana Scherbak, a director of a volunteer soup kitchen on the western bank, where a few dozen civilians huddled around a wood stove on Friday, warming their hands and charging phones from a generator.

In the central square, heedless of the explosions, on some days a drunken woman spirals and dances, arms out like a child mimicking the flight of an airplane. She is a character known to the locals who have remained.

“Everybody suffers” in her own way, said Svitlana Shpachenko, 54, a former accountant warming up at the soup kitchen.

In Ukraine, the long battle and heavy losses have turned Bakhmut into a national symbol of defiance. While this has provided a beleaguered citizenry a proud rallying cry, some analysts say it risks clouding military judgment, delaying a retreat if one becomes necessary. A Russian advance might also be stopped from the high ground to the west of the city, they point out.

The battle in Bakhmut has been fought in two phases: for the first 100 days or so the Russian regular army was involved, and from then on a private military contracting company, the Wagner Group, which has recruited prisoners into its ranks.

The second phase has been the bloodier one, as the Russians have assaulted the city using brigades made up of the convicts. The company’s owner, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, who is a close associate of President Vladimir V. Putin and is seen as wanting a victory in Bakhmut to boost his political standing back in Russia, tested new tactics.

Many of these units were essentially throwaway soldiers put into what Mr. Lee, the military analyst, called “not-well-supported infantry offensives.” Ukrainian soldiers have called them human wave assaults.

“It’s a completely different nature” of war than elsewhere in Ukraine, Serhiy Hrabsky, a former Ukrainian colonel and commentator for the Ukrainian news media, said of the fighting around Bakhmut. Ukraine persists in the city’s defense, he said, in part because “their losses are important for us.”

The attack on Friday was a case in point.

The Russians were moving forward from the forest into the town on foot, with no armored vehicles to be seen by the drone flying overhead. On the screen, the readings of altitude and range ticked up and down.

“Without eyes, we lose people,” said the drone pilot, who asked to be identified by his nickname, Navara, in keeping with Ukrainian military policy. “And we cannot lose people. We have fewer anyway.”

Navara asked not to reveal precise locations but said it could generally be said of the Russians moving into town that “the bastards are about 800 meters that way,” pointing a finger out the broken window of the building.

Not long afterward, Ukrainian artillery hit the Russians as they took cover in an area of deserted and mostly destroyed one- and two-story homes. In the streets of the neighborhood, a firefight was picking up, and the clatter of machine guns echoed about.

After a few flights, the drone team drove out by another road, avoiding the street fighting.

Private Andriy Pancheko, a member of the drone team, had been working as an electrician in Poland before the invasion but returned and volunteered in the army. Broadly, he said, Ukrainians were defending their country because “if we don’t fight, we won’t have freedom.”

The purpose of holding out specifically in the ruins of eastern Bakhmut was less clear, he admitted. “I don’t know, I just take orders,” he said. “They commanded me to be here. But why not? It’s our land.”

Evelina Riabenko contributed reporting from Kramatorsk, Ukraine.

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