BAKHMUT, Ukraine – In the smoke-filled basement of a nondescript building in the center of town Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine, the fighters of the SKALA reconnaissance battalion prepare for a risky reconnaissance mission. One of them lit a last cigarette in the dimly lit corridor. Dressed in body armor and a helmet, a bearded soldier wraps a yellow ribbon around both arms, a sign used by Ukrainian soldiers to identify each other on the battlefield. “Watch out there, there are snipers in that area,” a burly officer warns him, rising from his office chair in front of the flat-screen TV that periodically broadcasts the live feed of a drone flying over the carnage in the city. “I can’t die, my mother won’t let me,” quipped the soldier with a tired smile, checking his gear one last time before leaving.
The previously muffled sound of the artillery coming out becomes sharper and louder as the door to the street opens. They take off.
“The situation is quite tense, but we have it under control,” said Alexander, 23, clutching his American M4 assault rifle. “We are holding.” With his chiseled and boyish look, the young man would not look out of place in a trendy nightclub in the center of Kyiv. Yet for weeks Alexander and the grizzled soldiers of the SCALA battalion weathered the storm of daily Russian attacks and shelling on Bakhmut, huddled in the basement and making daily forays into gray area— the section between the Ukrainian and Russian positions. Named after its founder and leader, Yuri Skala, the SKALA battalion is tasked with conducting air and ground reconnaissance, as well as “clearance operations” – a euphemism for attacking enemy positions and eliminating the Russian soldiers manning them.
“Drones are our eyes out there,” Alexander says. There is Bakhmut, a salt-mining town of 70,000 known for its sparkling white wine, which has been ravaged by months of relentless Russian shelling and horrific trench warfare that has drawn comparisons to the Battle of the Somme or Passchendaele. The city is a major transport hub and is located on a strategic highway that runs through Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Yet some – including one of Ukraine’s top generals – argue that the city’s strategic value is dubious at best. However, this is one of the few frontline areas where the Russians are still advancing, and the success-starved Russian high command is desperate to win at any cost. Some theorized that the capture of Bakhmut would represent a personal reward for Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the infamous Wagner paramilitary group, whose mercenaries make up the bulk of Russian forces in the region. tThe US believes that Prigogine has a financial motive: Wagner often conquered lucrative gold and diamond mines in areas where he operated in Africa, and Prigogine may have targeted the salt and gypsum mines around Bakhmut.
According to Rehm, a former car dealer from the Dnieper who now corrects artillery fire with his drone, most of the soldiers sent in suicide attacks on Ukrainian positions in Bakhmut were “Zeks” or prisoners recruited by Wagner to increase the number of Russian forces in Ukraine. “Mobix [conscripts] they usually take fright and scatter when fired upon. These guys are not scared,” he said.
Of the Wagners, Rehm says they’re a far more effective fighting force than they’re usually given credit for: “After all, they’re making progress.” Desensitized to violence and with nothing to lose, the inmates—many of whom are violent criminals, including murderers and rapists – are considered by Ukrainian soldiers to be a stronger enemy than the average army conscript.
The Russian tactic of sending prison recruits to attack Ukrainian positions—allowing them to identify defenses for artillery to hit next—proved effective, if slow and deadly. Although no major breakthrough has occurred, they are slowly undermining Ukrainian defenses and moving closer and closer to the eastern outskirts of the city.
That assessment was echoed in late December by Oleksandr Danilyuk, Ukraine’s former national security adviser who now works on military planning, who said of the conscripts in the prison: “They are—I cannot say fearless—but they have almost nothing to lose. So they attack constantly and are also killed in large numbers.
Yet these incremental gains on the eastern approach to the city came at a cost to Russian forces, as seen during Prigogine’s well-publicized New Year’s visit to the front line. In a series of videos released by Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency, Wagner’s boss first visits a basement filled with the bodies of his fighters, many of them prisoners killed during the Battle of Bakhmut, before complaining that “every house [in Bakhmut] has become a fortress’ – and that it sometimes takes a week of fighting to take a single house.
According to a US official quoted by The Guardian on Thursday, of Wagner’s original force of nearly 50,000 mercenaries, more than 4,100 had been killed in action and 10,000 wounded, including over 1,000 killed between late November and early December near Bakhmut.
Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to the city in late December highlighted the symbolic value of the “Bakhmut Fortress” and the sacrifices made to defend it. A Ukrainian officer serving in the East, who wished to remain anonymous, ventured to estimate a dozen casualties a day.
Outside the SCALA command center, the streets are almost empty except for two civilians hurrying around carrying bags of groceries or pulling carts filled with empty water bottles. The thunderous sound of gunfire echoes through empty alleys and deserted public squares, bouncing off the facades of ruined apartment buildings and shuttered shops. Here and there a missile from a GRAD salvo fire system can be seen standing on the asphalt.
A few blocks from SKALA headquarters, Hrigoriy, 60, is busy chopping firewood in the parking lot of his apartment building, seemingly oblivious to the incoming artillery fire that rumbles in the distance. Dressed in warm winter clothes and black plastic boots, the man says he has no intention of leaving his apartment – even though the windows were broken the day before our visit. “I’m waiting for the Ukrainian army to win,” he says with a smile. “I’m not leaving.” Beside him, food simmers in a pot set over an open fire. The crater from the morning’s shelling lies meters from his makeshift kitchen. If he had been cooking when he hit, Gregory would have died.
Back at the command post, a group of a dozen soldiers are returning from a mission in the “grey zone”. The soldiers, drenched in sweat and high on adrenaline, rush through the door, cursing loudly. Roman, a soldier from Dnieper, lights a cigarette and introduces the rest of his crew in broken English: Vansi, a heavy soldier who served in the Donbass in 2015, and “Bahmut” who now serves in the charred ruins of his native city after sending the rest of his family to safety in Bulgaria. “I haven’t run like that in 20 years,” Roman exclaims breathlessly. According to him, 50-year-old Russian T-62 tanks operated in the area. “We couldn’t see them, but we could hear them,” he says. The use of such outdated models shows a growing shortage of equipment and vehicles among Russian forces, a problem compounded by sanctions targeting the country’s military industry. However, Ukrainian soldiers say the Russians should not be underestimated. “It’s still very noisy outside, the fight isn’t over,” Roman says, stubbing out his cigarette.
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