Surrounded and outgunned, Ukraine’s tank crews prepare for battle of Bakhmut
It is 10 minutes’ walk from the nearest Ukrainian village in the country’s eastern Donbas region, and the only clue to what lies around the corner are the deep track marks through the grass. A minute further, in the wooded valley beyond, is a cluster of tanks, nestling, concealed among the trees. Alongside are their crews, waiting and preparing, amid talk that a Ukrainian counteroffensive is on its way.
The youngest is Danill, who is particularly eager to talk. He is 21, already a lieutenant. A recent graduate of Lviv’s army academy, he helped in the defence of Kyiv, guarding an approach road with a rocket-propelled grenade before finishing his course. Then, a month ago, he joined the elite 214th Opfor battalion. The armoured unit has been operating for months in defence of Bakhmut city, but incomer Danill, a junior tank commander, has yet to see the fierce combat there.
“We are fighting for our future and those that already gave their lives,” says Danill (Ukraine’s military only allows first names to be used) trying to project confidence. But unlike the older soldiers, who comprise the majority of the unit, Danill looks edgy. The young man freely admits to being terrified when he had to defend Kyiv, smoking “half a packet of cigarettes in four hours”, and while he is determined to play his part, he knows his first true military test awaits: “When I got into the school, I didn’t think I was going to be in an actual war.”
As spring emerges from Ukraine’s sub-zero winter, talk is turning to Kyiv’s prospective counteroffensive, on which the outcome of war may hinge. Russia’s 10-month effort to capture Bakhmut, a small industrial city in the Donbas with no strategic value greater than its crossroads, is stumbling. Meanwhile, in the past week 31 Leopard 2 tanks from Germany, Sweden and Portugal have arrived in Ukraine, as well 14 Challenger 2s from the UK. A Ukrainian D-day is expected in weeks.
Yet here, among the trees, a secret location a few kilometres from Bakhmut, the vaunted western weapons are not in evidence. Most of Ukraine’s military will have to make do without. Alim, 58, is the captain who commands the tank unit, made up of Soviet-standard T-64Bs, originally, he emphasises, “made in Kharkiv”, Ukraine’s second city. The design is from the 1960s, although these are not quite so dated – “some of them are 38 years old,” Alim says, meaning the tanks are older than many of the soldiers who drive or crew them.
Nobody in the tank group knows where they will go next, or when a full counteroffensive might come, although the tanks have just been loaded with munitions. Ukraine has about half the number of tanks that Russia has – on one estimate 953 against 1,800 – and the commander believes the key difference the western arrivals will make is numbers. “We don’t have enough of our own,” Alim says – a significant problem when attackers typically seek a 3-to-1 ratio on the battlefield to be confident of a military breakthrough.
Preparations for the battle to come are all around. At another secret location, infantry soldiers from the frontline 24th brigade are being drilled in assault training by Magnus, a former Swedish army lieutenant with 12 years’ military experience. “These soldiers have mostly been defensive fighting in the trenches. Assault fighting is a completely different ball game,” the instructor says, with sharp cracks of gunfire continuous in the background. Later he walks the Ukrainians through an elaborate drill aimed at taking a nearby crater with two positions of covering fire from above.
Units from the 24th are among those stubbornly holding Bakhmut, in their case since November, enduring some of the most intense fighting seen in Europe since the second world war. “Everybody, not just the 24th, is losing a lot of guys in Bakhmut,” a soldier from the brigade says, although he declines to put any figures on the losses “until our victory”. The exercises, it turns out, is rare time off for the troops, a few days in the dead zone in the rear before being pulled back into the frontline.
Russian forces began to attack Bakhmut last May, a sector of the front managed by the private Wagner group, which made heavy use of prisoners in human waves of attacks. But the invaders only began to seriously advance in January and February, when Wagner was assisted by elite Russian VDV paratroopers. Now the Russians are threatening to cut off the supply routes from the north and south.
Drone footage shows that Bakhmut, which had a pre-war population of 70,000, is shattered, although remarkably many of its multistorey central blocks still stand. Russian casualties, killed and wounded, have been particularly horrific – estimated by western intelligence at between 20,000 and 30,000. Ukraine has suffered fewer, with Nato estimating it is losing one person for every five Russians, but its combat losses include some of its most experienced soldiers.
Ukrainian veterans of the fighting talk of having to see off repeated waves of attack by Russian squads. A few days earlier, in the quiet of a cafe in central Kyiv, Oleksii, a 31-year-old staff sergeant and mortar gunner who worked as a computer programmer before the war, calmly explains how his unit has killed “hundreds of people” and that it is normal “to find bodies of enemies without weapons and armour”.
I do not look on the Russians as humans. I just need to destroy to free my people
“It’s like Vietnam. There are bullets, harder artillery, aviation, helicopters,” says Oleksii, who was first posted to Bakhmut with the 93rd brigade in August. A drone operator spots the waves of attackers from a distance, and the mortar crews, working at a range of up to 3.5km, target them. On the busiest day he says he fired the mortar 417 times, in a battle “that lasted 20 and a half hours”.
There is something chilling about the way Oleksii calmly describes the fighting, justifying his work after he learned about the discovery of mass graves of Ukrainians killed by the Russian occupiers at Bucha, north of Kyiv, early on the war. “I do not look on the Russians as humans,” he says without any emotion, adding: “I just need to destroy to free my people.” Such comments reflect the brutal necessity of the battle in Bakhmut – and the inherently dehumanising nature of war itself.
As the Russian attacks continue, there is concern in some circles that president Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s stubborn insistence on fighting in the city could blunt the offensive potential of its army. Liudmyla Buimister, an MP who was formerly part of Zelenskiy’s party in the parliament, and since the start of the war a special forces commander, called for a tactical retreat in mid-March to preserve Ukrainian lives, and argued “a lost battle does not mean a lost war”.
Yet this is not how the soldiers see it. The prevailing view is, as Alim, the tank commander, describes: “We have to hold our land” – meaning it is necessary to resist somewhere. “It’s important to me, even if I die there,” adds Oleksii. “You are from London. Would you not fight for a city in Scotland?” he asks. No doubt there is fear despite the bravado, but there is also no significant loss of Ukrainian military cohesion.
Recent developments back up the point. In March, the Russian advance in and around Bakhmut slowed, and the city centre remains in Ukrainian hands – for now. George Barros, a military analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, believes there are reasons to believe that Ukraine can fight back, because it has not exhausted all its key forces: “I’ve not seen any indications that Ukraine has deployed its reserves in Bakhmut – but Russia has deployed elite elements from its airborne units.”
Oleksandr, a spokesman for the 24th brigade, adds that while Bakhmut may be surrounded on three sides, its tall and well-built central buildings, many of which also have extensive basements, make it easier to defend than Chasiv Yar, the next village on, eight miles west. “It is mostly small houses there,” he says, and the village is being heavily bombed. The sound of incoming artillery was clearly audible on Thursday from neighbouring Kostyantynivka, a further seven miles to the south-west.
Residents from east side of Kostyantynivka, nearest the frontline, have largely already made up their own mind, knowing that, despite the determined resistance, Bakhmut may fall at any time. The district on the far side of the railway is largely deserted, says Mykola Tereshchenko, an assistant mayor in the town, who adds that around 40 to 50 people a day are asking to be evacuated further west.
Russian bombs are striking with increased frequency in the exposed eastern district: three women were killed and several wounded when a so-called “invincibility shelter” for people fleeing the fighting was struck around midnight on 24 March. One of the wounded, Igor Andreev, 52, his face covered in bruises, is being still treated in the town’s hospital, the closest major civilian facility to the frontline. Andreev was seeking refuge from Bakhmut at the time, and was rescued from the rubble.
Confidence is draining from Kostyantynivka, and many of its shops and buildings are boarded up, even those that are still functioning. In the hospital, of the 60 cramped beds available for patients, 50 are taken up by victims of the war, the highest proportion yet. Plans to upgrade the wards, Tereshchenko says, were put on hold because of the start of the war; instead the hospital had to build its own wood-fired boiler for heating and connect a donated generator, work that was just beginning when the Guardian visited in August.
Spring seemed far off on Thursday, amid falling snow and zero-degree temperatures. Warm weather will come, but at this hinge point in the war, little else is certain. Yet despite everything, Anastasia Yaremchuk, the hospital’s medical director, who gave birth to her second child in the autumn, says it is necessary to be optimistic. “Being depressed and pessimistic will just stand in the way of our job. You have to just focus on your work. We’ve already built the house,” she says, referring to the autumn utility works, “and now we just need the team to keep going”.