The battle is as intense as it is decisive around the city of Bakhmut. The Russian positions are located within 200 meters of the Ukrainian military unit joined by CNN. The unit is caught up in a horrific artillery duel, sheltering in cellars, and using commercially procured drones as the best line of defense and intelligence.
Through broken windows, and from inside the rubble-strewn rooms, Ukrainian soldiers look across the adjacent field, which is riddled with countless black craters of artillery shells.
“They can see us here,” said a Ukrainian soldier, pointing into the distance.
This is a new type of frontline fighter. Moscow’s manpower dwindled after as many as 80,000 casualties, according to US officials, prompted Moscow to turn to the country’s sprawling private mercenary sector, the Wagner Group.
Here in Bakhmut this system is put into ruthless work. This city has been the focus of Russian forces in the past weeks, even as they have abandoned their positions around Kharkiv and appear to be struggling for control elsewhere. Wagner’s mercenaries were deployed to this battle, according to multiple reports from the Russian media, and made gains around the city’s eastern fringes.
Mercenary attacks are often devastatingly brutal: the Ukrainians told CNN that Wagner fighters were rushing towards them with small arms attacks, prompting the Ukrainians to shoot them to protect their positions. After that, the shooting reveals the whereabouts of the Ukrainians, which allows the Russian artillery to target with greater accuracy.
The attacks are regular and the bombing is almost continuous.
“We see a hostile mortar unit. They are preparing to shoot us,” said a drone operator, looking at his screen.
During CNN’s time with this unit on Tuesday, shells fell intermittently nearby, at one point rocking the walls of the basement shelter. Here, a Ukrainian officer, known by the call sign “Price,” tells CNN about the last captured Russian.
“We fight a little bit with these musicians,” he said, referring to the Wagner group named after the composer.
“There was a Wagner guy we arrested. He was a convict from Russia – I don’t remember exactly where. He was shot or surrendered for him. They are acting professional and not like the usual infantry units,” he said.
“The real problem is the artillery, it’s really accurate.”
As he was speaking, another shell fell near the shelter.
Bakhmut’s city center is now littered with large potholes from Russian bombing, with main streets riven, and stadium seats torn in two.
Analysts believe that the city could provide Moscow with a strategic position in the Donbass from which to advance north toward Sloviansk and Kramatorsk – and deliver a much-needed strategic victory at a time of mounting losses.
Martin, another Ukrainian officer, agreed to a series of trenches on the other front line, buried in the woods.
“[The Russians] They withdrew elsewhere and they need to win something important so they threw forces here.”
“Of course we have victims, not today in our unit. But you cannot avoid the dead or the wounded, and sometimes the seriously wounded.”
These losses were very personal. “I lost my best friend, five days after we got here,” he said. “His nickname was Dancer.” As with many call signs or nicknames, Martyn has no idea why his friend got this sign.
Throughout the city, local life is punctuated by massive explosions of bombardment. One of the locals, Andrei, has sad, dark eyes that speak of explosions, lack of electricity, water and calm.
However, he said of his street: “The situation is not so bad, just every second house is ruined.”
Natalia helps many out of life, selling potatoes – half a ton of them one morning alone. “Who knows where the bombing is coming from,” she said, as another explosion made her laugh nervously.
“Don’t be afraid,” she added.
The streets of Bakhmut were empty on Wednesday, and shelling appeared to be intense on the eastern edge of the city, with Ukrainian guns targeting apparently Russian positions.
An apartment building, which I had already hit once, was still smoking after another missile hit all four floors. Soldiers were grinding anxiously in the street outside to check for damage. Military vehicles hum along the streets.
Slower, she walked home with the food in a noisy and noisy wheeled cart, retired Maria, her eyes covered with large sunglasses.
“With God you have no fear,” said Maria. “And you can’t feel fear in your own land either.” More explosion noise penetrated the sharp creak of its rusty wheels.