In Bakhmut, Ukrainian troops cling to western edge of a destroyed city

A Ukrainian junior sergeant with the call sign Bandit on top of a destroyed building on Tuesday. Ukrainian and Russian armed forces are fighting bloody battles in the ruined eastern city of Bakhmut. (Ed Ram for The Washington Post)
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BAKHMUT, Ukraine — Moving between apartment blocks, small teams of Ukrainian and Russian ground forces are battling for control of Bakhmut’s western edge.

“We can attack and repel them for a day or two, or they can advance, and we have to retreat again,” said a 35-year old Ukrainian junior sergeant responsible for holding a position in a high-rise building just a few yards from the front line. Like others in this report, he spoke on condition that he only be identified by his rank and call sign “Bandit” in keeping with military protocol.

“I don’t even know, to be honest, what will happen in a week or two,” Bandit said. “A lot of people are dying here, a lot.”

For months, Ukraine and Russia have flooded Bakhmut with reinforcements and carted away thousands of dead and wounded in what has become the longest, bloodiest battle of the war. Now, after eight months of Ukraine steadily ceding territory, the fight is closing in on just a few square miles of the city’s west.

As the vise tightens — with Russians assaulting from the north, east and south — Kyiv is determined to draw the fight out as long as possible, hoping to deplete its enemy ahead of what is expected to be a high-stakes offensive aimed at dislodging Russian forces from a large swath of occupied territory.

In an effort to speed up its advance, Russia has begun destroying entire apartment blocks used by Ukraine as defensive positions. The city is flattened in many places and most of its prewar population of about 70,000 have fled.

“They are simply blowing up nine-story buildings,” Bandit said. A powerful aerial bomb, he said, “was dropped on the four-story buildings next to ours — there was nothing left of it. If it had landed on our building, we wouldn’t be here either.”

Ukraine defended Bakhmut despite U.S. warnings in leaked documents

Russian advances have also closed in on Ukraine’s supply roads to western Bakhmut. Moscow claimed to have taken control of a few hundred yards of one road on Friday, but Ukraine says it still can ferry soldiers and supplies in and out as needed.

The current front line in the west runs south of the main train station that Ukraine has been using as high ground, but Russian forces have pushed past the railroad tracks to the northwest and southwest edges.

The Wagner mercenary group has largely led Russia’s fight for Bakhmut and its leader, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, has repeatedly claimed his forces were on the verge of taking the city. Prigozhin personally broadcast videos marking Wagner advances after pushing into city center, including one in which his fighters placing a flag on a World War II liberation monument and another from the city’s main administration building last month.

Since the video from the administration building was released earlier this month, Russian forces have advanced less than a mile farther into the city center.

A damp basement on the city’s edge has been transformed into a Ukrainian command center. Computer screens and a tablet set up on a simple table toggled between half a dozen drone feeds showing Russian positions about three miles away.

A lieutenant with the call sign “Plai” tracked a small Russian infantry unit moving across a courtyard between buildings.

“We’re looking for movement, any kind of movement,” he said as the feed zoomed in on a shattered building and coordinates were radioed to a nearby howitzer.

The wider shots showed dozens of homes shredded by months of artillery fire. “The whole city looks like this,” Plai said. He said he blames Russia for the majority of the destruction, but also accepts Ukraine has played a role given that both sides have relied on heavy artillery since the battle began.

“We feel responsible, but we also understand that we will be rebuilding Bakhmut after this is over,” he said.

Russians in turn believe that they will be the ones to reconstruct Bakhmut, which they call Artyomovsk, its Soviet-Russian name, just as they are now rebuilding occupied Mariupol, a port city in Donetsk that was largely destroyed during a Russian siege last spring.

Russia bombed its own city, Defense Ministry says

In the Ukrainians’ basement command center, one drone feed flashed a warning “GPS signal weak,” then “aircraft signal interference” before the image began to spin. “It’s falling,” Plai said as the screen became garbled and then went dark. “It got too close to the jammers.”

Plai said the fight for Bakhmut has intensified over the past week, as Russia and Ukraine each sent reinforcements into the city and are suffering more casualties. Both sides have deployed elite units to Bakhmut at various points to strengthen ground operations and reconnaissance.

Increased reconnaissance focusing on a smaller patch of territory in Bakhmut has forced Russian and Ukrainian troops to be more mobile. After launching an attack from one position, ground units typically need to move quickly before drones overhead are able to call in artillery.

“There can be an immediate response if the enemy drones see where a shot came from,” said Bandit, the junior sergeant. “We come, we work there and we leave. No one waits in the same place for a response. The crew can die if they sit at one point for too long.”

“The battles are tougher now,” he added. “It’s exhausting, it’s hard to even think afterward.”

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.