Continuous assaults, water-logged trenches, and cold: How Ukraine is holding the line in Bakhmut

30 November 2022, 05:55 PM
Branch of hell. The battle for Bakhmut is the fiercest battle with the Russian invaders (Photo:RFE/RL/Serhii Nuzhnenko via REUTERS)

Branch of hell. The battle for Bakhmut is the fiercest battle with the Russian invaders (Photo:RFE/RL/Serhii Nuzhnenko via REUTERS)

For more than six months, Russian troops – from elite units to released criminals from the Wagner Private Military Company – have been fighting with the stubbornness of idiots, as if against a wall, for the defensive positions of Ukrainian troops near the once 70,000-person city of Bakhmut. This region of Donetsk Oblast, together with Avdiivka, located north of Donetsk itself, has been the hottest point of the full-scale war for weeks. It is also the only place on the entire thousand-kilometer front where the enemy is trying to advance. The losses of the occupiers here are estimated at thousands of dead, but they stubbornly mount new attacks, which take place in the solid autumn mud.

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In an interview with NV, the commander of the Svoboda battalion, Petro Kuzyk, whose unit is one of those holding Bakhmut, spoke about what is currently happening on the front line.

NV: Is it true that the invaders are trying to surround Bakhmut from the south?

Kuzyk: In this area, they have concentrated assault groups, and a lot of resources. They are trying to show the whole world that they are capable of anything. When they realized that they could not take Bakhmut head-on, they began a circling maneuver, trying to go around from the right and left. They began to press attacks in all directions. So now their offensive has spread all over the area. The situation is difficult, because in some areas, for example, in Kherson, a lot of our equipment was concentrated, and could hit its targets well. There is still no parity in artillery here near Bakhmut. The Russians have much better armament in terms of artillery. They are thrashing us.

And now our defenders here are outnumbered thanks to the "Wagnerites" and inmates. We talked to a prisoner. They follow prison colony rules. He himself is an anti-tank missile operator. He was thrown into an assault. He asked why exactly he should go on an assault, because he is an anti-tanker. He was beaten quite seriously, thrown into the cold, and a week later was called and asked if he would join an attack. And he agreed, because he remembered a story when the men were standing in formation, the commanders came and said: "Guys, we understand everything – cold, rain, swamp – it's hard. If you don't want to, raise your hand, you won't have any questions." Two people raised their hands, they were taken aside and shot in front of the entire formation. Then they asked: who still does not want to fight? These guys are driven by fear and constantly storm our positions in small groups.

NV: Do the Russians attack in small groups, then group together to break through somewhere?

Kuzyk: Yes, there is a certain logic in this. First, small groups that support each other are less vulnerable to our artillery, because they are small and there is no point in spending ammo on them. This makes the defense a little easier for our defenders, but since there are ten such assaults a day, and six or eight at night, it seriously exhausts our defenses. The same tactics have persisted as during the war: convicts and chmobbies (Russian slang for conscripted soldiers – ed.) who were caught are released onto our lines, and we have to destroy them. The enemy detects our firing points and tries to inflict damage with artillery. Accordingly, they then continue their attacks, they group up within 100 meters, and when they have accumulated enough (and all this time attacks are going on in these small groups), they make a dash and jump on our defenders’ positions or tear out the defense lines or the fortified area. The tactics are quite effective and, in my opinion, they have no other option. But they are bearing serious losses.

NV: How big are their human losses?

Kuzyk: They are colossal. They don't even count bodies. The fields, the woods in front of the positions are all littered with corpses. I watched them: they dragged their people back to bury them, take off their warm sweaters, and start to put it on themselves. But, nevertheless, each assault group has a grenade launcher, a machine gunner, and their machine guns more or less perform their tasks. They have herds.

I apologize for speaking slowly now, because I'm very cold – it's making me dizzy. I've now left the first line (since I was called). I'm warming up in the car, I'm almost falling asleep, because I haven't slept all this time. They charged yesterday, quite seriously. They felt a weakness in our defense, because (I will not name the numbers of the units, so as not to spoil their honor) there are units that are less motivated than ours. And yesterday they weakened our defense a little in the area just around the Bakhmut. Some units could not withstand this artillery onslaught and retreated.

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This is our principle: we, the Svoboda Battalion, do not retreat. And because of that, we found ourselves in a semi-surrounded situation, and we had a lot of work to do. In addition, it is a swamp full of mud. It is very difficult to evacuate the wounded or to deliver ammunition. The trenches are constantly deteriorating, and in this swamp they must be constantly rebuilt.

NV: There have been photos of the trenches with knee-deep puddles.

Kuzyk: These are absolutely real photos, because there is no time to build drainage in the trenches. And there is no one to do it. Everything is done by hand, everything is done under fire. The rains have passed. Today is the first day without rain, but then and yesterday when it fell, all the water flowed into the trenches. And the shelling was such that it was impossible to get out of the trench, so the guys were constantly wet for a day or two. Plus the temperature is like this. Many are contused, many with pneumonia. But we hold our ground, and we defend. I see young guys standing with their teeth clenched. I would really like someone to write about their achievements, because few people in the country know about it.

I am now out of the combat zone. And I saw that some kind of bullshit had appeared regarding “resilience points” (literally “points of invincibility,” these are locations in Ukrainian cities for people to warm up and charge their electronics during power outages – ed).”

I think: what are these politicians really doing? You need to write about our guys! These are our points of invincibility – they are really sitting in inhumane conditions, they are constantly being stormed. They not only withstand assaults and fight back, but they also counterattack, take territory from the enemy, take them prisoner.

NV: I remember our conversation when your unit was defending Severodonetsk, and the enemy was pressing hard. I understand that the situation is more difficult now, because there are no buildings, nowhere to hide.

Kuzyk: Your conclusions are absolutely right. The situation is all the more difficult because when they stopped pressing head-on and concentrated their main efforts on bypassing the city, our units had to take positions in less-protected conditions and lay out positions in the field from scratch in order to prevent an encirclement. And this is why the situation is more difficult: we are like sitting ducks, because there is no more tree cover (all the trees were cut into splinters by artillery shells). We are sitting in the fields. We are saving tanks and armored personnel carriers for battle.

NV: About the seriously wounded: I understand that it is difficult to get to the first line in order to collect them, so you have to carry people by hand?

Kuzyk: Yes. First, the wounded must wait at their position until it gets dark, because it is impossible to carry them out during the day. Second, as soon as it gets dark, and now it is earlier, we carry the wounded by hand somewhere under 2 km from their position.

NV: I remember that there were also cases in Severodonetsk when some units left unexpectedly. And Svoboda covered for them itself. Is there the same situation now?

Kuzyk: I would not like to belittle the merits of others. There are units that stand and fight like lions. Unfortunately, there are units that cannot withstand this pressure and these conditions. Among the units, there are those who were recently mobilized, who were promised to be on the second line of defense, but who were thrown in here to close the breakthroughs. To put it mildly, they are not ready either psychologically, or even with appropriate clothes, appropriate equipment (they should have compact heaters, shovels, rubber boots, capes, etc.). They don't have that, so they got wet on the first day. The winds blew into them and they got sick. In such conditions, they are totally uncomfortable and leave.

I would like people to know about the achievements there have been. The men of Svoboda Battalion are now in their positions. We are not withdrawing, and so we have about 120 wounded now. 16 of our guys have died. First, it is necessary to defend Ukrainian land. Secondly, if we do not hold our positions, we will simply be bypassed from the right and from the left. We end up having to do this professionally.

NV: What do the defenders of Bakhmut need now?

Kuzyk: Now we need the focused attention of our leadership, because we do not have a victory, we are still really far from it. Bakhmut is a key city, and it cannot be surrendered. Here we need resupplies of ammunition for artillery. We have the munitions, as the example of Kherson and Kharkiv showed. The artillery is there, it just needs to be concentrated in the right places.

This is not only a matter of the Svoboda Battalion, but of everyone. In order for these divisions not to be finished off, they need to be given time for rehabilitation. It is necessary to reduce the burden, or rather, introduce a rotation period. Some units need time to dig in, and have their ailments treated (pneumonia, colds, etc.). To wash their things, dry them, put them in order. And as they entered, they are still standing. Then there would be none of these breakthroughs, and everyone would work evenly.

I believe that rotation should be done wisely. You don't even need to take it far – 10-15 km from the front line, so that all the explosions put less pressure on your head.

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