Seven miles from the Ukrainian front line, resting Ukrainian soldiers smoked cigarettes on shaded benches outside a military hospital. The constant thud of artillery could be heard in the distance. The city of Bakhmut felt deserted. There was little meaning to life before the war – no children, cars and hardly anyone. Windows were boarded up with only a handful of civilians on the streets. Almost the only activity had been brought here by the war.
The soldiers, tired and jaded, described a perilous fight to hold eastern Ukraine. First a relentless bombardment by Russian heavy equipment, quickly followed by the advance of tanks and infantry – whose job it was to “clean up” any remaining Ukrainian troops.
For 13 weeks, Russian forces have been trying to seize the provinces of Lugansk and Donetsk. They seized the town of Popasna, 30 km east of Bakhmut, and overran most of Sievierodonetsk, 35 miles to the northwest. Bakhmut – known in Soviet times as Artemivsk – stands in the way of any further Russian advances.
Despite the magnitude of their enemy, the soldiers said they still believed that will and good would prevail over evil.
The masses of weapons that the Russian side possesses and is ready to launch in this war mark a difference from the proxy war waged in eastern Ukraine in 2014, the soldiers said. At the time, Russia was trying to cover up its involvement. Not this time.
The Ukrainian army has many highly motivated fighters, they said, but their equipment and men are being pounded by the masses of Russian shells, rockets and missiles.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said between 60 and 100 Ukrainian soldiers died every day in the Donbass region and around 500 were injured. The Guardian was given access to Ukrainian soldiers on the condition that it not disclose their surnames and the location of Ukrainian positions.
Zelenskiy visited the frontline on Sunday and visited Soledar, just north of Bakhmut, and the heavily bombed town of Lysychansk.
On the road to Bakhmut, Ukrainian army vehicles including ammunition and fuel trucks were visible as well as a spectacular 2S7 howitzer mounted on a loader. The dark traces of a Smerch multiple rocket launcher system stained the sky.
The soldiers said they had become accustomed to the ruthless shelling from the Russian side. “The first time you see a tank, you are scared,” said Sasha, a young doctor. “After a while, you no longer feel it. It’s like going into a trance. Your objective is to kill the enemy. You cannot do this if you have a normal psyche. You become other. My parents tell me that I am disconnected from reality.
“When you fight in a city, positions are occupied in buildings,” added Sasha, who left his hometown of Donetsk in 2014 when Russian and Russian-backed forces took over. “They shoot at you with artillery – grads, missiles, mortar – and then, if you have nothing to answer, you [retreat] in another building and they move forward.
Sasha and company were the third replacement unit sent to Rubizhne in Luhansk, one of many towns in eastern Ukraine that have been wiped out by the fighting. Like the first two companies, Sasha’s unit was eventually retired. As they were leaving, a rocket landed on their armored vehicle. “We were walking out and three rocket-propelled grenades hit us. Our vehicle overturned. Almost all of us were injured, myself included.
The next day, May 11, Rubizhne fell to Russian forces.
“There are a lot of negative moments that are not talked about,” Sasha said, referring to Ukraine’s wartime information strategy and censorship laws. “But I am ready to fight until the end because I don’t want anyone else to lose their home like my family did in Donetsk.”
Most civilians fled Bakhmut. A few remain, despite the constant thump of outgoing artillery and the bursts of gunfire in the streets. Two people, Lena and Oleg, said they stayed behind to care for Lena’s elderly father. “Before, it was a big city. We had 15 factories. Bakhmut bloomed. How far was the battle? “It’s close,” Lena said.
Fighting continues outside the city. On May 31, 24-year-old Ivan, a car mechanic from western Ukraine, was injured in a fight in an abandoned village on the outskirts of Rubizhne. He and his unit dug trenches near a forest. Three of his friends were killed by Russian assailants.
“I went to smoke a cigarette. All of a sudden, all hell broke loose,” Ivan said. “The Russians were hiding in the trees. There was an artillery barrage. Then a bullet passed. A sniper was shooting at us.
Ivan and another soldier, Vitya, dived from a nearby summer hut into one side of the trench. “Andrushka tried to join us but he was shot in the head and died,” Ivan said.
“Then our sergeant, Oleh, took cover and ran towards my position, but a bullet ripped half of his head off and he nearly collapsed on top of me.”
A moment later, the sniper also shot Vitya, who was on Ivan’s right, and killed him as well. Ivan’s gun was out of rounds, so he grabbed his sergeant’s rifle when he too was hit.
“A bullet fragment went into my right eye and the blood started flowing,” said Ivan, who had a concussion and ringing in his ears from the blasts. “I came to my senses and tried to drag Oleg’s body to the nearest village house. I couldn’t see properly.
Ivan threw one of his two grenades, not to hit the Russians but as a distraction, he said. “I pulled the pin out of the other. I thought, ‘If they come, I can blow myself up and take two or three with me.’
He added: “The battle lasted 15 to 20 minutes. The reinforcements arrived, they snatched the grenade from my hands and took me out.
Still visibly shaken, Ivan is recovering in hospital from his eye injury. Doctors say he will be able to see after a while.
In the Dnipro region hospital where Ivan is being treated, doctors said more than 122 Ukrainian soldiers were treated for eye injuries after being hit by blast fragments. “The injuries are much worse than in 2014, when they were just bullets,” said a doctor, Yulia Valentinivna. “Very often both eyes are damaged.”
Vasia, a soldier whose eye was hit by shrapnel and is unlikely to fully recover, said he had no regrets. “Russia has more artillery than we have cartridges,” Vasia said. “The only way for us to resist is to lay down our lives.”