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The battle for Bakhmut: Ukrainian city a smoking ruin as Russians forced back in disarray

An armoured personnel carrier kicks up dust as it careers across the drying land.

The harsh winter here has turned to spring and the boggy farm tracks have hardened.

After months of setbacks, the change in seasons has ushered in a change of pace for the Ukrainian army.

In the open land around Bakhmut, they are now advancing on their enemy.

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The Institute for the Study of War assesses around 10 square miles of land around the beleaguered city has been liberated in the last week.

We were the first journalists to join the 3rd brigade, the fighters responsible for the counteroffensive that triggered more fighting on the northern and southern flanks of Bakhmut, and they wanted to show us how they were forcing the Russians back.

The fighting here remains fierce and the last few hundred metres towards the new frontline have to be made on foot, across open ground.

The new Russian lines are not far away.

It’s just a few hundred metres from where we tread.

An army in disarray

As we walk into what was Russian-occupied territory just days ago you can hear the sound of small arms fire – machine guns crackle in the distance – and we’re told they’re trying to take it back.

Our military guide, Dotsent, shows us the foxholes where the Russians hid when the Ukrainian surprise assault began.

“Here they were crawling,” he tells us, pointing to a trench in a treeline decimated by shrapnel and gunfire.

Many were obviously wounded; there were used tourniquets, field dressings and torn clothing all around.

A helmet with a bullet hole lay on the ground.

Ammunition crates were left behind as those who could fled in a hurry.

It is a snapshot of an army in disarray.

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Dotsent was part of the assault and he describes a bloody fight.

The positions of those who refused to surrender were stormed with armoured vehicles or cleared out with grenades.

What should be fields of wheat are pockmarked by the shelling.

Dotsent tells us: “Regarding the size of our advance and how many casualties the Russians had through the whole line – and this is only preliminary information – it’s awesome. And this lifts our morale. Everyone is now in high spirits.”

But such offensives come at a cost too.

“Yes, we also had casualties, two people died and they were very young. What can we do?”

As we were leaving a soldier appeared from further along the front with a pick-up truck carrying a dead Russian from the battlefield.

“Our people killed him. Maybe it was mortars because he has a lot of wounds. There are a lot of dead bodies. Too many.”

He is impatient to leave, the sound of the shelling nearby is getting louder and he says he has a lot of work still to do.

‘Of course we are optimistic’

At the brigade’s underground bunker a few kilometres from the frontline, soldiers scan the landscape for Russian movements using drones.

They show us a livestream of the city of Bakhmut.

It’s a grey, smoking ruin of destroyed and burned buildings.

Nothing has been spared from the shelling.

And despite Ukraine’s success in recent days Russia still controls 90% of the city.

It has been the focus of their military campaign for months.

But with Ukraine’s new Western weapons, additional training and successes like these the Ukrainian soldiers here are confident they can win back their country.

They tell us: “Of course we are optimistic. We know what we are doing, we know how we must do our attack or our defence. We know that in the end, maybe two, three, five years, I don’t know, we will win this war.”

When the main counteroffensive comes is still a guessing game – even for the troops on the ground.

But they know their time is coming and they say they are ready.

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