“I’m in the trenches. We’ve fortified ourselves in the positions” that Russia once held, Yuriy, a soldier in the Ukrainian Army’s Fifth Separate Assault Brigade, wrote in a text message from a position to the south of Bakhmut, near the village of Klishchiivka. He spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“Around us are a lot of dead Russians,” he said.
Ukraine still holds slivers of the city, including the area around what has become a landmark of Ukraine’s last redoubt: a destroyed sculpture of a Soviet MiG fighter jet, according to multiple military personnel involved in defending the position, which Russian forces continue to contest.
Oleksandr Syrsky, Ukraine’s eastern military commander who made a surprise visit to the front lines Sunday, acknowledged that Ukraine controlled only a “small part” of Bakhmut, but said that the new aim was to surround the city in a “tactical encirclement,” echoing a statement posted to Telegram by Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar.
Word of this strategy to prolong the fight, regardless of who technically had control of the city, emerged as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky painted a bleak picture of the state of the battle in response to questions posed during a visit to Hiroshima, Japan, for a Group of Seven summit meeting. His remarks raised questions about what a Ukrainian victory would look like, given the destruction of the city and the costs its defenders have already paid.
“You have to understand, there is nothing,” Zelesnky said Sunday — nothing of Bakhmut as it once stood left to control.
The city, in the northeast of Donetsk region, was the home to some 70,000 people before Russia invaded Ukraine last year. It has since been decimated, hit by some of the fiercest fighting of the conflict, as Russian troops and Wagner Group mercenary forces, made up largely of freed Russian prisoners, gained ground block by block.
On Saturday, Wagner founder Yevgeniy Prigozhin claimed that his forces had at last captured the entire city and the Kremlin released a statement from Russian President Vladimir Putin that praised the liberation of the city, referring to it by the Soviet-Russian name, Artyomovsk. Ukraine rejected the claims.
The full capture would be a rare win for Moscow, which has struggled to lock in clear victories since the early days of the war.
But the Russian side has been riven with internal differences over Bakhmut, with Prighozin unleashing a steam of public criticism of his Russian military counterparts over their handling of the assault. Ukrainian forces have been able to exploit these differences to hold off an enemy that greatly outnumbers them.
Stanislav Bunyatov, 22, a soldier with the 24th Separate Assault Battalion who was injured on Wednesday in fighting near the villages of Klishchiivka and Ivanivske, said that his unit was able to attack during a period when Wagner mercenaries were being replaced by Russian soldiers.
“They were not ready for us,” said Bunyatov, who is in the city of Dnipro recovering from an injury caused by grenade shrapnel.
Accounts of Ukrainian success outside of Bakhmut stand in contrast to tales of setbacks within the city. On the roads to Chasiv Yar, a town to the west of Bakhmut that serves as a staging ground for Ukrainian forces, some soldiers offered pessimistic views of the battle for the city.
“Bakhmut is done,” a 47-year-old soldier in the 24th Brigade, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share his candid assessment, said Sunday. He said he had been in the city the day before.
Ukrainian advances have been reported in nearby areas, with commanders announcing on May 9 — Victory Day in Russia — that they had taken more than a square mile of territory to the city’s south. Officials have portrayed this as a strategic move.
Such advances make it “very difficult for the enemy to stay in Bakhmut,” Maliar wrote on Telegram on Sunday, referring to the capture of high ground outside the city.
The fight for Bakhmut has confounded some analysts, who described it as strategically irrelevant to the broader war. Ukraine is currently preparing a long-awaited spring counteroffensive where it will hope to penetrate Russian defenses on at least one part of its 200-mile front line.
If Russian forces are tied up in Bakhmut, some have argued, it could hurt their preparedness elsewhere.
President Biden said in Hiroshima on Sunday that Russia had suffered more than 100,000 casualties in Bakhmut, a startling figure if accurate.
Russia’s difficulty in holding the city may be compounded by Prighozin’s claim the he intends to withdraw Wagner fighters from the city in favor of new business opportunities in Sudan.
Ukraine, some pessimism aside, appears willing to continue the fight. Bunyatov, the soldier recovering from a grenade injury, said he hopes to return to the front lines, preferably in Bakhmut.
“My brothers in arms are there,” he said.
One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine
Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.
Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.
A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.
Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.