Ukraine troops 'on edge' as Moscow seeks to encircle Bakhmut
In the basement of a residential building in Bakhmut, a soldier who goes by the call sign "Fox" said he did not know how much longer he and his comrades could hold out in the Ukrainian frontline city.
Russian forces have been trying to capture the eastern salt-mining city since last summer, in what has become the bloodiest battle of Moscow's one-year invasion, and Kyiv's military leadership has called the situation very tense.
While some Ukrainian soldiers were trying to sound optimistic, vowing to hold the nearly destroyed city for as long as possible, the 40-year-old fighter gave a starkly different account.
In an interview, the soldier said the Ukrainian troops fighting for Bakhmut did not have enough soldiers and ammunition and felt dispirited.
"Everyone is on edge," Fox said.
He spoke to AFP from a basement where he and his comrades had set up camp.
He sat on a bed with his assault rifle beside him, as he listed the difficulties the troops face.
"Lack of sleep, cold, rain, the weather is changing all the time, constant shelling, constant infantry assaults," said the camouflage-clad soldier.
Last year Fox sustained an injury and could no longer serve in the infantry. He now ferries supplies to troops in the trenches and evacuates the wounded.
Bakhmut holds little strategic value, but President Volodymyr Zelensky has said Ukrainian troops will fight for it as long as they can.
Military observers say both Russia and Ukraine have been sustaining huge losses in the battle for the city.
Fox said it was hard to make any predictions but it was becoming increasingly hard to resist fierce Russian assaults and artillery shelling.
"We don't feel support from our artillery," he said.
"I think Bakhmut will most likely fall."
Other soldiers said it was important to stay optimistic, however, despite the dire circumstances.
"If we feel down, if we are apathetic, we will not prevail. But we are in good spirits," said a mortar gunner with the call sign "Kai", grinning broadly.
"We haven't run away. We're all here," the 44-year-old told AFP inside a house where he and his comrades were staying.
A fellow mortar gunner, who goes by the call sign Ded ("Granddad"), struck a similar note.
"I'm totally optimistic," the 45-year-old Ukrainian soldier said in Russian, an assault rifle behind him.
Taking a drag on his cigarette, he expressed hope that Ukrainian troops would not only retain control of Bakhmut but also take back Moscow-annexed Crimea.
- 'Strong aggressor' -
But Fox said it was important not to underestimate the enemy.
"We are battling against a strong aggressor," he said.
"They've had major losses, drawn conclusions and changed their strategy."
Aided by regular Russian forces, the notorious mercenary group Wagner has spearheaded the assault on Bakhmut and surrounding settlements.
Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is an ally of President Vladimir Putin, has recruited fighters from prisons and touts his outfit as Russia's strongest fighting unit.
Even Fox said the course of the battle showed not all Russian soldiers were "idiots, alcoholics and drug addicts".
"They have smart people there. People who know how to fight," he said. "They think, they learn, the same way we do."
Bakhmut is now standing at "a huge cost", the soldier said.
"Every street is covered in our blood."
Fox stopped short of criticising his commanders but said he did not know why Ukrainian troops were still fighting for Bakhmut.
"Perhaps this is a political decision," he said.
A year into the war, Fox said he felt glad simply to be alive.
He joked that even cats -- who are believed to have nine lives in common myth -- consider him "lucky".