Bloody fighting is raging in the town of Bakhmut in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Both sides are blasting each other with artillery and rockets to take the city by the end of the year. Russia and Ukraine are sending additional soldiers, armor, ammunition, and supplies to this seething front. It has become a decisive point that both armies wish to hold at all costs during a war that is approaching its one-year anniversary with no peace deals in sight.
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Violent Street Fighting
Bakhmut is a curious target for such fierce combat. It is not altogether strategic in value. A win in this battle will not necessarily change the tide of the war for either side. But commanders have circled it on the map as a must-hold territory, nonetheless. As Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty said, there are “explosions every minute” in Bakhmut, which is located 30 miles north of Donetsk.
Russia Wants It as a Base for Future Attacks
Russia has been trying to fully control Bakhmut for around seven months. The city was known in Soviet times as a source of salt and wine. Russia would like to take it so it could use the area as a jumping-off point to attack Sloviansk and Kramatorsk to the north.
The Only Safe Place Is Underground
Exhausted fighters from Ukraine are resting up between engagements in at least one underground base that hides and protects them from Russian artillery fire. Most civilians have left the city that once had around 70,000 residents. The people remaining in the city have no electrical power and are starting fires with any fuel they can find. They gather rainwater from muddy holes in a desperate effort to stay hydrated. They cook whatever food they scavenge.
Many buildings have already been destroyed in the months of shelling and these ruined structures give Ukrainian and Russian snipers the cover they need to ambush enemy combatants.
Unsophisticated Fighting with High Casualties in Ukraine
The tactics are crude. Green Russian troops with little experience are attacking Ukrainian positions fruitlessly to serve as “bait.” They are identifying where Ukraine has positioned its artillery and soldiers. Russian artillery then pounds those locations while its own infantry die and are wounded in the skirmishes. The Russian howitzers then fire harassment and interdiction fire indiscriminately at what they believe are civilian positions.
Pages Out of World War Two Playbook
The fighting resembles World War Two street-to-street fighting. It is not that sophisticated, but some soldiers on the Ukrainian side are using high-tech methods to locate the enemy. There are infrared scoping techniques that are identifying Russian positions, the New York Times said on December 18. Both sides are using drones for artillery targeting.
Foreign Fighters and Mercenaries Flock to the Front in Ukraine
The fighting, according to the Times, has also included foreign volunteers from the United States and other allied countries. These fighters try to introduce modern tactics to the Ukrainians, but the combat still resembles techniques that are decades old. Fire artillery and try to maneuver through the various neighborhoods while the other side attempts to ambush the advancing forces from covered and concealed positions in the smoking ruins. Russia is using mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a personal security contractor.
Don’t Forget Trench Warfare
Outside of town, dark muddy trenches with underground bunkers are inhabited by both sides as troops do their best to stay protected and warm in the mainly overcast skies. Troops are using drones to drop grenades over the trenches, so soldiers must be alert even though they are exhausted from fighting. The Russians and Ukrainians have lost hundreds of troops killed or wounded.
Machine gun and artillery fire do not let up, even at night. Basements provide some protection as soldiers rest and try to shake off the stress of constant combat. Very few streets are safe from shells that continue to rain down. Bakhmut is a symbolic case study for the entire war. It is a bloody stalemate with little ground gained. No one wants to withdraw because it would mean losses that have been in vain.
Look for no clear victory as both sides continue to pour men and resources into the battle and continue the fight through the New Year in Ukraine.
Author Expertise and Experience: Serving as 19FortyFive’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.