(Bakhmout) The earth is hardened by the cold, but no matter: they dig. With shovels, they cut through the heart of the ghost town, between a supermarket with boarded up windows and a residential building deserted by its tenants.
However, they have no pipes to repair in the ruined city, which has long been deprived of water and electricity. These men are not road workers. They are Ukrainian soldiers – and they are preparing for the worst.
The new scar they inflict on Bakhmout is a trench.
If these soldiers are preparing for the worst, it is because the worst, as incredible and hopeless as it may seem, has not yet happened in the martyred city of Donbass, largely destroyed by months of fierce fighting.
The worst thing for these soldiers would be to have to rush into the trench they are desperately digging in the frozen ground. To save their skin. The worst would be to have to face the mercenaries of the Wagner group in a fierce street battle.
They know it would be a battle without rules and without mercy, like the one that has just nearly annihilated the small mining town of Soledar, 15 kilometers to the north.
And the worst, unfortunately, is very likely to happen.
The Russian enemy is approaching. At the cost of immense human losses, he wants to seize the city. As if the outcome of the war he himself started was being played out there – and nowhere else.
For months now, Bakhmout had become the hottest point of the 740 kilometer front which tears the east and south of Ukraine. But since Christmas, the fighting has redoubled in intensity.
Ukrainian soldiers crossed in Bakhmout feel too well the Russian vice tightening around the besieged city. Every day, they see their ammunition reserves run out and their comrades in arms fall in battle.
And the pressure is mounting. And fatigue sets in. ” The situation is critical. We are attacked from all sides. We try to push them back, but it’s difficult,” summarizes Onyx, a machine gun operator who identifies himself only by his nom de guerre, like the other soldiers crossed in the rubble of Bakhmout.
Despite the fatigue and the cold, the Ukrainian troops manage to resist the repeated assaults of the Russian forces, although far superior in number.
For now, Bakhmout is holding firm.
But for how much longer?
For decades, the city of Bakhmout has been famous for its flower gardens and, above all, for its sparkling wine, the famous “Soviet champagne” appreciated east of the former Iron Curtain.
But all that changed abruptly last year.
The whole world will now remember Bakhmout, not for its flowers or its bubbles, but for its deaths. Its name will evoke a cursed city, where one of the bloodiest battles of the war in Ukraine took place.
A battle whose outcome is not decided, but from which this city will probably never fully recover.
The trauma is too great. Desolation, too absolute. You can feel it even before entering it. Taking the road to Bakhmout in these bad times is a bit like embarking on a journey to the end of hell.
On the road, razed villages follow one another. As we progress, we have the strange impression that the colors are gradually fading from this devastated landscape. Everything becomes more and more grey, more and more cold. As frozen in horror.
When the car swallows the last kilometers, all traces of life seem to die out around us.
Finally, we reach the gates of Bakhmout.
We pass the hideous bars of Soviet-style housing, gutted by shells. The carcasses of charred cars, abandoned on street corners. We cross the checkpoints erected in the middle of the deserted streets.
Finally, we stop at the entrance to the Bakhmoutovka bridge. We stop, because there is no longer any road: the bridge has collapsed. But also, because the fighting is raging on the other side, to the east.
The crackle of machine gun bursts resounds in the city almost completely emptied of its 72,000 inhabitants. The muffled detonations of mortar fire testify to the fury of the fighting. But for the die-hards who refuse evacuation, these continual explosions have become a sort of background noise; they don’t care anymore.
An old man crosses the icy river on foot, carrying two cans of gasoline. An irreducible. He passes us without a glance, busy surviving. Here, it’s a full-time job. Not all succeed.
Taking the road to Bakhmout is not just a trip to hell. It is also a time travel. Barely a year after the start of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, this place seems to have gone back a century.
On the outskirts of the city, the drones of the military have captured images that freeze the blood: we see the frozen plains of the Donbass holed with shell craters and strewn with corpses. That’s how we imagine Verdun or the Battle of the Somme: bloody and merciless.
Many analysts compare the quagmire of Bakhmout to those of the First World War. Ukrainian soldiers returning from the front speak of carnage. Onyx, the machine gun operator, claims to be repelling incessant waves of conscripted or recruited soldiers in Russian prisons.
Launched into open ground, poorly trained, these men rush towards the Ukrainian trenches. Most of them are killed before they reach them.
Ukrainian soldiers call it “meat waves”. That’s what it is: cannon fodder. “When I see them, I shoot, then I watch their limbs shatter,” Toha says quietly, applying WD40 to the door of her tank to prevent it from freezing on the battlefield.
The human waves invariably crash against the Ukrainian positions. But the Russian forces continue to sacrifice hundreds, thousands of men, convinced that sooner or later Bakhmout’s defenses will eventually be overwhelmed.
I feel like our enemies have no choice. They are charging towards us with guns pointed behind them. They know that if they try to retreat they will be killed by their own commanders.
Onyx, Ukrainian machine gun operator
Captured Russian soldiers claimed their leaders had threatened to execute them for desertion if they refused to advance towards Ukrainian positions.
The tactic is cruel, but seems to work. It is the work of the paramilitary group Wagner, whose owner, Yevgeny Prigojine, gave his mercenaries all the credit for the recent – and still contested – capture of Soledar.
“The entire territory of Soledar is covered with the corpses of the occupants,” the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, said on Monday. This is what madness looks like. »
It may be sheer folly, but if Bakhmut falls, the Kremlin might be tempted to continue its westward push by unleashing human waves against other cities – including the capital, Kyiv.
On the threshold of its second year, the war in Ukraine would then take an immensely darker turn.
If Russia wants so much to seize Bakhmout, it is for the symbol. For the Kremlin, a victory, even a modest one, would turn the tide after the humiliating withdrawals from Kharkiv and Kherson.
The Ukrainian soldiers say they are ready to defend Bakhmout to the end. Even if the city is nothing more than a field of ruins. At the rate things are going, they will soon have nothing but rubble to defend.
They too are fighting for the symbol. That of their determination to block the advance of the Russian forces.
At the exit of Bakhmout, Bro, 23, sways to the sound of music, standing on his tank. His comrades in arms, cigarettes in their mouths, encourage him with a laugh. They await the call which will order them to return to the fight. “Waiting is worse than doing,” sighs Bro.
How will the Battle of Bakhmout end? “There can be only one outcome, he replies confidently: our victory. »
To read tomorrow: “Living under the bombs”