Inside the 'meat grinder': Russian and Ukrainian losses mount in Bakhmut
Eastern city, site of heavy fighting since August, holds symbolic value for both sides
Warning: This story contains a graphic photo
Both sides call it a "meat grinder," with scores of dead soldiers, a wrecked cityscape and only people with nowhere to run still living there. Why are so many Russians and Ukrainians dying for Bakhmut?
For almost six months, the Eastern Ukrainian city has been the site of intense, grinding trench warfare that reminds authorities and analysts of the First World War.
"Everything is completely destroyed. There is almost no life left," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said late Monday of the scene around Bakhmut and nearby Soledar, both in Donetsk province. "The whole land near Soledar is covered with the corpses of the occupiers and scars from the strikes.
"This is what madness looks like."
Bakhmut has some strategic value, but military analysts say it is out of balance with the battle's attrition and devastation. Instead, Ukraine, Russia and the mercenary Wagner Group are fighting for the political victories and symbolic worth Bakhmut might bring.
Battlefield footage suggests intense fighting for relatively modest stretches of ground, with the front line edging back and forth.
The fighting is "the most intense on the entire front line," said Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov.
"So many remain on the battlefield ... either dead or wounded," he said on YouTube. "They attack our positions in waves, but the wounded as a rule die where they lie, either from exposure as it is very cold or from blood loss."
Ukrainian troops fighting in Bakhmut and Soledar say attacks come in waves of small groups, each with no more than 15 soldiers.
The first wave is usually wiped out, said Taras Berezovets, a Ukrainian journalist, political commentator and officer in the Ukrainian army. He said pro-Russian forces would retreat after defeat and leave white ribbons for the next wave to follow.
But while Ukrainian authorities focus on Russian losses, Ukrainian deaths and injuries pile up as well.
Wounded soldiers arrive around the clock for emergency treatment at a Ukrainian field hospital located near the front line around Bakhmut.
Medics there fought for 30 minutes on Monday to save one soldier, but his injuries were too severe.
Another had a head injury after shrapnel pierced his helmet. Medics quickly got him stable enough to transfer him to a military hospital for further treatment.
"We fight to the end to save a life," said surgeon Dr. Kostnyantyn Vasylkevich. "Of course, it hurts when it is not possible to save them."
Why they fight
This fighting has been going on since August. Why do both sides care so much about this particular city?
The city has been Moscow's "main offensive effort" for months despite its "limited operational value," Britain's Ministry of Defence tweeted in December.
Taking Bakhmut would potentially allow Russia to threaten larger urban areas — Kramatorsk and Sloviansk — but the battle has been "disproportionately costly relative to these possible gains," the ministry said.
"There is a realistic possibility that Bakhmut's capture has become primarily a symbolic, political objective for Russia."
The ministry said Tuesday that Russian troops and Wagner Group mercenaries were probably now in control of Soledar after four days of advances.
If confirmed, it would be Russia's most substantial gain since last August.
Moscow's desire for the win is underscored by the presence of the Wagner Group, a private Russian paramilitary organization run by an ally of President Vladimir Putin.
Its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said on Tuesday, "Wagner units took control of the entire territory of Soledar. A cauldron has been formed in the centre of the city in which urban fighting is going on."
But Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar on Tuesday evening said that fighting for the eastern salt mining town was still raging.
"The enemy disregards the heavy losses of its personnel and continues to storm actively," she said. "The approaches to our positions are simply strewn with the bodies of dead enemy fighters. Our fighters are bravely holding the defence."
Zelenskyy and the military command did not mention control of Soledar on Tuesday evening. Zelenskyy repeated his call for more Western weapons, saying Russia was gathering its forces to intensify its campaign — which began with its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.
Prigozhin's men include Russian prisoners, freed under a deal that will hand them a pardon if they fight for six months. But if they join up and desert, they face execution.
In November, independent Russian news outlet Mediazona reported that publicly available data from Russia's Federal Penitentiary Service showed the overall prison population shrank by more than 23,000 people in September and October, suggesting many convicts had taken up Prigozhin's offer.
Prigozhin would welcome the political victory a win would bring him in Moscow. Meanwhile, the U.S. says Prigozhin wants control of the salt and gypsum from the mines.
For Ukraine, say experts, the importance of holding Bakhmut — aside from its value as a symbol of Ukrainian resistance — is partly about sustaining support from Western countries on whose arms supplies Ukraine's war effort is dependent.
With Ukraine having scored a string of battlefield successes, even a relatively insignificant defeat risks creating the perception of stalemate, which could make Western countries less willing to extend support for Kyiv amid their own mounting economic problems stemming from the war.
'Our town used to be so beautiful'
Meanwhile, the scant few ordinary citizens who remain in the city try to survive.
Bakhmut was home to roughly 70,000 people before the war, but even months ago the population was estimated at closer to 10,000.
Intense shelling has left 60 per cent of the city in ruins, Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said last week.
Like Mariupol and other contested cities, Bakhmut endured a long siege without water and power.
"People who left moved to stay with their children or brothers and sisters. They had places to go," resident Ilona Ierhilieieva said in October as she mixed soup on an open fire by the side of the road. "But as for us, we don't have a place to go. That's why we are here."
Last week, a drive around Bakhmut by Reuters revealed the scars of months of bombardment, from smashed storefronts to mangled workshops and wrecked businesses.
Volunteers like Vasyl Liesin, 30, help to maintain "invincibility centres," set up to provide electricity, heat, water, internet service, mobile phone connections and medicines free of charge as Russian attacks devastate basic civilian infrastructure.
The centres may demonstrate spirit, but they are far from invulnerable.
"When we visited another invincibility point yesterday for 15, 20 minutes, a rocket hit us. It damaged a volunteer vehicle, killed one person, and injured four," said Liesin, who was wearing a helmet and a flak jacket.
"Volunteers were injured, and one local Bakhmut volunteer lost a limb and was evacuated. I hope that people were in their protective gear, but the situation is unclear. We know they were seriously injured."
Olha, 75, smartly dressed and wearing lipstick, reminisced as she carried shopping bags along a Bahkmut street last week.
"Dear God, our town used to be so beautiful," she said.
"There were roses everywhere, flowers," she added, hardly flinching at the sound of a distant boom.
With files from The Associated Press and Reuters