“Look there, Ivan is going for a walk,” said a Ukrainian commander in an underground bunker. He was watching live drone video on Tuesday of a dozen or so Russian soldiers stepping into a farm field on the outskirts of Bakhmut.
He sat up in his chair for a closer look. Artillery strikes were called in. Other soldiers in the bunker gathered around to watch.
“Oh, good!” one yelled as a puff of black smoke erupted silently on the screen beside several of the Russian soldiers.
This is one of the signature forms of combat around Bakhmut and other fiercely contested cities and towns in eastern Ukraine — bombardment, by both sides, directed by aerial drones. While troops in central Bakhmut battle at quarters close enough to hear their enemies shout and see them bleed, on the city’s periphery, the ripping apart of living human beings is a more remote affair, often witnessed on a soundless video feed.
On the commander’s screen, a scene of mayhem ensued. The tiny figures began to run, but it was slow going in the mud. The Ukrainians guessed the Russians’ foot speed and the flight time of the mortar bombs, deciding how far in front of the fleeing group to drop explosives.
“What do you think, 150 meters? No, better 200 meters,” the soldier calling in strikes radioed to the mortar crew. More puffs of smoke blossomed.
After half a dozen strikes, the Russians had scattered, some dragging the wounded, and bodies lay still in the field.
The fighting in and around Bakhmut, which has stretched now for 10 months, has been among the fiercest and most lethal of the war, claiming tens of thousands of killed and wounded, according to Western governments. The city’s strategic significance is debatable. But each side has justified carrying on by saying it is weakening the other’s army with high casualties.
On Sunday, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Russian mercenary company Wagner that has led the assault on the city, said soldiers had raised a Russian flag over the ruins of city hall. A video confirmed to have been filmed at the site indeed showed a Russian flag.
Ukrainian officials denied that Russia controlled Bakhmut, but the flag at least showed that Russians, who control the portion of the city east of the Bakhmutka River, were slowly advancing west of the river. Drone videos from flights over the city on Tuesday showed fighting ongoing in western neighborhoods.
The Institute for the Study of War, an American analytical group, reported Tuesday that Russian forces were consolidating control over the city’s central districts. John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Monday that Ukrainian troops were still fighting in the city.
The battle for Bakhmut has been fought in two related theaters: in vicious, block-by-block urban combat, and in fields and villages to the city’s northwest and southwest.
Soldiers who left in recent days described chaotic, close-range combat within the city, with Russians and Ukrainians sometimes holding apartment blocks on opposite sides of the same street.
Just outside the city, Russian forces are trying to outflank the Ukrainian defenders and cut their supply lines, forcing a retreat, but Ukrainian commanders say the fighting for control of the access roads has eased.
In both theaters, said the commander of the battalion that fired mortars into the field, Ukraine has an advantage in fighting on the defensive. He asked to be identified only by his nickname, Bochka, or Barrel, in keeping with Ukrainian military rules that usually prohibit using soldiers’ names, for security reasons.
“War is math,” he said. “To attack a city, you need a three-to-one advantage. We defend with a company. They attack with a brigade.”
The Russians’ tactics result in heavy losses, reinforcing that need for numerical advantage. They often send troops into the open, without the protection of armored vehicles, to probe Ukrainian defenses, dig trenches or plant land mines, knowing that many will not return.
The Ukrainian soldiers in the unit here, the second battalion, are defending against a Russian thrust toward a highway to the southwest of Bakhmut. The pace of ground assaults has tapered off, Bochka said.
Ukraine has adopted the tactic of continual aerial surveillance of Russian positions. When one drone’s battery is running low, another is already in flight to take its spot in the sky.
“It’s like watching a nature movie,” Bochka said of the video feeds, mostly provided by slightly modified consumer drones. “We watch them eat. We watch them talk to one another.”
Only when Russian soldiers congregate or attempt to advance is it worthwhile to fire artillery, which is not accurate enough to hit a single soldier in the open. Across hundreds of miles of front lines, Ukrainian forces, with fewer big guns than the Russians and chronic shortages of artillery shells, have to pick their targets more selectively.
The Russians also use close drone surveillance, to target Ukrainian positions with incessant artillery. Just in Bakhmut and the surrounding areas, Russian forces fired artillery at Ukrainian positions 238 times over the previous 24 hours, Serhiy Cherevaty, the spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern military command, said Tuesday.
Inside the devastated city, combat is more often firefights with small arms, amid the rubble piles and hollow shells of ruined buildings. Such close-up gunfights occur less frequently in the fields, where most exchanges are at long range.
The Ukrainian troops directing mortar fire on Tuesday live in underground bunkers, warmed by crackling wood fires. Sleeping bags drape over cots. Tables are cluttered with radios, modems and television screens.
Above ground at this frontline spot is a blighted panorama of ruined village houses, curtains blowing in their broken windows and trees ripped apart by explosions.
Soldiers run from their jeeps or armored vehicles into the relative safety of the bunkers.
On the crackle of a Ukrainian radio, orders to evacuate a wounded soldier spoke to losses on their side, too.
Underground, unfurling on a big screen was a sepia-colored early spring landscape of dry grass, bare trees and mud.
The tiny figures of Russian soldiers moved about. Ukrainians speculated they might be planting mines in the buffer zone between the trench lines, though the purpose of their walk was unclear. Then they ran for their lives as the mortar rounds rained in.
“Too bad, too far away,” one Ukrainian soldier said, watching a detonation well clear of the fleeing Russians.
The soldier calling in strikes watched the figures run. “They are leaving to the left,” he told the mortar crew on a radio. From outside the bunker came the thud of an outgoing round. A few seconds later, smoke appeared again on the screen.
“Oh, good!” a soldier yelled, pumping his fist into the air. “More, more!”
The chase continued for about five minutes. “Minus two,” a Ukrainian soldier said after one hit. “And it looks like that one is limping.”
Members of the drone team could not immediately estimate the casualties. They would need to keep the camera zoomed out to watch for threats. Only later would they be able to fly closer, to see if Russian bodies remained in the field.
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from outside Kostyantynivka, Ukraine.