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How Ukrainian forces denied Russia victory in Bakhmut by Victory Day

A Ukrainian tank rides on the road near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, on Thursday. (Boghdan Kutiepov/AP)
9 min

KYIV, Ukraine — They started shelling at sunrise.

In the dawn haze, under the cover of their own artillery, small groups of Ukrainian soldiers advanced toward a Russian position on the outskirts of the embattled city of Bakhmut.

Drone footage had identified an avenue of attack on Russian lines on the outskirts of the besieged city. Intelligence suggested the Russians were so focused on the intense street battles playing out inside they were not expecting an assault from this direction, according to two battalion commanders in Ukraine’s Third Assault Brigade who helped plan and execute the operation and spoke by telephone.

For nine months, the bloody fight for this eastern city has dragged out inch by inch, with massive casualties on both the Russian and Ukrainian sides. Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the high-profile commander of the mercenary Wagner Group, promised to deliver the city by May 9, Russia’s hugely important Victory Day celebration. By the end of April he claimed his forces had taken nearly the whole city.

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Yet instead of giving Russian President Vladimir Putin a victory to announce in his speech in front of the Kremlin on Tuesday, Ukrainian forces scored a rare advance this week south of the city and held fast in the city center. The two commanders shared details of the surprise offensive, which Ukrainian ground forces commander Oleksandr Syrsky confirmed was successful. The Washington Post could not independently verify the details of the fighting.

On May 6, dozens of Ukrainian troops advanced on the Russian foxholes, knowing they would “have to fight for every single pit,” said Rollo, the 29-year-old commander of the brigade’s first assault battalion, who spoke on the condition he would be identified only by his call sign.

The battle lasted for 12 grueling hours, but by sundown, the troops from Wagner Group broke and fled, leaving five dead behind.

“They tried to resist. They fired back. Others escaped, and then some were killed,” Rollo said. “But in the end, those who remained alive just ran away.”

Two days later, after withstanding Russian artillery counterattack on the newly seized position, the Ukrainians advanced again — moving through farmland in three columns of tanks and American-made armored personnel carriers. Once within earshot of the enemy, they spent hours negotiating with dozens of Russian soldiers, urging them to surrender.

“We were screaming at them, ‘Surrender you fools, you morons!’” Rollo said. When some Russian troops kept shooting, “Ukrainians used the APCs to just push them back and later stopped and asked again, ‘Would you like to surrender now?’”

Some agreed, but others shot back or ran into a nearby forest, he said. By afternoon, dozens of Russians were dead. Five were taken prisoner, Rollo said, including two who had to be treated by Ukrainian medics. Most of the soldiers belonged to Russia’s 72nd Motorized Rifle Brigade.

“We were knocking out Russian positions and connecting our liberated areas,” said Slip, 32, commander of the brigade’s second assault battalion. After some Russian troops were killed, others became “demoralized and some of them also just ran away,” he said. Neither commander would disclose their own casualties.

By May 9 — the same day Prigozhin had pledged to take control of Bakhmut — Ukrainians had retaken more than a square mile of territory south of the city.

“I feel pleased … that the enemy didn’t have this opportunity to feel good or have victory on this day,” Rollo said.

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The claims of battlefield successes come as the world waits for signs Ukraine will launch a much-hyped spring counteroffensive made possible by weapons donated from its Western partners. Prigozhin, who has swapped his confident attitude over Bakhmut with angry tales of betrayal by Russia’s Ministry of Defense, has asserted that the counteroffensive is now “in full swing.” On Friday, he invited Russia’s defense minister to visit Bakhmut and witness the “difficult situation” himself as he maintains he is not being given enough ammunition to complete his conquest of the city. At one point he even threatened to withdraw his forces.

But analysts say he is probably bluffing — in part to justify his failure to take Bakhmut as promised. “He is dramatizing the situation and he is, of course, protecting himself,” said Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian defense minister.

Syrsky, the ground forces commander, said Russian soldiers facing the Third Assault Brigade “could not resist the onslaught of the Ukrainian defenders” and that some had retreated more than a mile in recent days.

President Volodymyr Zelensky, however, said Ukraine is still preparing for its counterattack — the plans for which remain secret — but said Friday that troops had made progress against Russian forces in some parts of the east. Analysts expect that operation will focus on liberating occupied areas of Ukraine’s south, although it is possible Ukrainian forces will run a distraction campaign in Bakhmut or possibly even pivot and send unexpected reinforcements to the embattled city.

Senior Ukrainian officials have expressed concern that expectations are set too high for the planned offensive, which may result in less significant gains than counterattacks last year that retook swaths of Ukrainian territory from unsuspecting Russian troops.

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For months, Ukraine has faced criticism from its partners for its continued insistence on holding Bakhmut despite massive casualties and low strategic importance. But as months have passed, Kyiv has pointed to Russia’s major losses in the city as reason to stay the course. Redirecting efforts there as part of the spring counteroffensive could prove to Western supporters that Ukraine was right — and is capable of retaking the city.

The fight there “really keeps a large number of Russian troops around and prevents them from breaking through our country in different directions,” Zelensky said in an interview with The Post last week.

The losses are enormous. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said in an interview last week that Russian forces are suffering about 500 casualties per day in and around Bakhmut. Ukraine does not disclose its own battlefield casualties.

And even as Ukrainian forces were retaking significant territory to the south, the troops inside the city were locked in a ferocious, grinding battle as Victory Day drew closer.

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On May 5 and 6, Russian soldiers hammered the position held by the 127th Territorial Defense Brigade so many times that after the fourth wave of attack, the Ukrainians could no longer keep track of the dead and wounded Russians outside, said the brigade’s commander, Col. Roman Hryshchenko, 41.

“The faster we dealt with these waves, the faster they were relaunching the storms,” he recalled by phone from inside Bakhmut on Thursday, as the Russians pummeled the position he was holding. In just over 20 minutes on Thursday night, Hryshchenko counted the sound of 48 incoming shells aimed at his forces. At one point, he had to disconnect the call to see if his shelter had caught fire.

He was holding the basement of a building that once had nine stories but had only four left. In another two to three days, he expects every building on that line to be demolished. The shelling inside the city is so intense, he said, that in his brigade, they “all have concussions.”

Unlike the rural area to the south, the situation is “even more difficult” inside Bakhmut now, he said, adding that he was facing fresh troops that had been brought into the city.

At the same time that Ukrainian forces were making advances south of the city at the start of the week, the Russians inside the city destroyed the roof and corner of a five-story building where some troops from the 127th were based.

Wagner soldiers then scaled the building, taking control of the third and fourth floors while his soldiers held the first and second, Hryshchenko said. At times the troops were fighting only five feet apart. His men eventually prevailed, and they repelled that wave as well. But they hardly had a chance to rest before they were back under attack.

“It’s constant. Once we kill the first group, we suffer under artillery and they send in another,” he said.

This mass expenditure of Russian troops and ammunition is one reason Ukraine has been eager to stay in Bakhmut. But the situation inside remains “very tense,” said Zagorodnyuk, the former defense minister.

The battle for Bakhmut is far from over, and one success to the south is not enough to change the outcome of the fight for control of the city itself. “With a few more operations like that the situation may change, but it’s too early to say,” he said.

The scale of the advance Rollo’s troops achieved in the south would be impossible inside the dense confines of the city, Hryshchenko said. “You cannot make a success like two kilometers [1.2 miles]. We are talking about each individual meter, and each meter is a hard job to get back.”

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And while Prigozhin claims he is running out of ammunition and not being given the resources he needs by the Russian Defense Ministry, the Ukrainian troops arrayed against him say the scale of the assault is worse than ever.

Hryshchenko described how his 127th Brigade rations ammunition for its howitzer, while each day the Russians are covering every square mile with shells until every building is destroyed.

“If I had that opportunity to use that much artillery,” he said, “I would probably finish the war.”