"This Here Is Hell" Soldiers Have Limited Access To Modern Weapons in Bakhmut
The bulbous, dark green and dented vehicles emerge suddenly from behind a building wall that is still standing. Two armored vehicles belonging to a unit of the Ukrainian army’s 93rd Brigade. They are the pride of this tiny group of fighters – or, to be more precise, the only ones they’ve got.
The low track vehicles with their small guns don’t bear the dramatic name of some beast of prey, instead going by the rather prosaic abbreviation BMP-2, which stands for "infantry fighting vehicle, type 2." They were built in the Soviet Union at some point in the 1980s before becoming part of the Russian army arsenal. They were then captured by the Ukrainians last fall during the chaotic Russian pullout from the eastern city of Izyum.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 8/2023 (February 18th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.
But here, in a suburb of the city of Bakhmut, which has been the site of heavy fighting for months, the Russians are showing no signs of retreating. For weeks, they have been throwing wave after wave of soldiers at the front, firing volley after volley of heavy artillery and slowly pushing back the Ukrainian defenders, gradually encircling the city. On a map of Ukraine, Bakhmut is just one tiny dot on a frontline that extends for around a thousand kilometers.
The Reality of War
The view from afar, and the debate in Germany, tends to be dominated by the – usually small – deliveries of Western weaponry. But what does the reality of this war look like? What kind of battles are being fought and what role does the modern weaponry from Germany, America and elsewhere actually play?
On the day before this early February morning, Russian troops nearby had managed to take a Ukrainian position, says gunman Yevgeniy. Now, the goal is to reconquer it. As part of the attack, the two BMPs are to advance to an unexpected location to distract the Russians from the main thrust, which will be made elsewhere. "Slightly beyond the front, to attract Russian fire to our position,” Yevgeniy says.
When asked if they have ever attempted such a maneuver before, he snorts: "Three times a day.” He swings down from the vehicle’s steel roof into the snow. "Come with me!” He trudges ahead through the devastated rooms of the house. "There, that’s the last three days,” he says, pointing to a 1.5-meter-high pile of empty munitions crates. In the next room, he says "last week,” pointing to an even larger mountain of crates. From the distance, the pounding of artillery can be heard. Back outside, Vanya, a mechanic, says: "The Russians, they’re all cowards.” Okay, he allows, there were simply too many of them yesterday. But generally? "A bunch of sissies.” It’s their way of gathering the necessary courage for the coming fight.
Soldiers Eugene and Vanya in a house in BakhmutFoto: Johanna Maria Fritz / Agentur Ostkreuz / DER SPIEGEL
And their two Soviet armored vehicles, the mechanic points out, have been tended to, so they should be more-or-less OK. Just that during battles, the commander has to keep sticking his head out as soon as it gets too warm inside. When that happens, the periscopes fog up and the soldiers can no longer see anything. Which explains why, during fighting, they fire early and often, as fast as the gun allows, over 500 30-millimeter projectiles in a minute. "That way, at least, nobody can fire at us.” But that also means that the cannon’s magazine is empty after the salvo and the crew is on the verge of suffocating because of the smoke that collects inside the vehicle. A few days ago, a Grad rocket just barely missed them. "But we haven’t really been hit yet,” says Yevgeniy.
At least they have two vehicles that are armored and still work. And it is a similar story for most of the thousands of Ukrainian soldiers fighting in and around Bakhmut: They generally don’t have access to modern weaponry like the Panzerhaubitze 2000 from Germany or the HIMARS multiple rocket launcher from the U.S. Instead, they have to make do with ancient artillery and rifles from Soviet times, with captured Russian vehicles or with Iranian mortars that the U.S. Navy intercepted on their way to Yemen and later handed over to the Ukrainians. In some places along the front, where the two sides are especially close to each other, the men even have to be worried about hand grenades.
Ukrainian soldiers in BakhmutFoto: Johanna Maria Fritz / Agentur Ostkreuz / DER SPIEGEL
Ukrainian soldiers in Bakhmut change out the barrel of a gun.Foto: Johanna Maria Fritz / Agentur Ostkreuz / DER SPIEGEL
It's almost time for Yevgeniy and his comrades to head out. The men have spent the entire morning using rubber hammers to pound each shell individually into the metal magazine that feeds the rounds into the cannon on-board. "Manufactured 1984" it says on the packing slip inside the box of munitions. "It takes an hour and a half if everybody helps, and then it’s all gone in a minute," says Andriy, one of the two drivers. He was a taxi driver before the war, so they have dubbed his armored vehicle Taxist, meaning taxi driver. The other is called Hutsul, after an ethnic group in the Carpathians, where three of the five men are from.
They were teamed up by chance at a military base half a year ago, they say. "We’ve been around a bit since then," says Yevgeniy, trying to sound casual. "Kharkiv, Izyum, Donbas." Gunman Kolya, who has been silent until now, offers a response to a question about whether they like their captured armored vehicles. He says he would much rather go fishing again than fight in a war.
Half an hour passes with no orders. An hour. "The morning has gone by and we still haven’t gone Russian hunting," says Vanya. They are slowly getting antsy. But then, a message arrives from the commander’s bunker: The Russians had attacked first that morning. Yevgeniy’s vehicle is to immediately make its way to the front lines a kilometer away, and from there, it is ordered to fire into a patch of forest out of which Russian infantry are advancing. Silently and seriously, Yevgeniy and his team head off, returning without incident not long later after firing off a few salvos. Two other armored vehicles and an anti-aircraft vehicle roll out of their hiding places in support.
Then, someone yells: "Drone! Nobody knows which side it belongs to. All of the men take cover along the building wall and the press officer accompanying us suggests that it is time to clear out. A normal day on the front in Bakhmut.
We can meet in quiet when he’s off duty, says the member of a Ukrainian elite unit over the phone. Later, he arrives at the parking lot of a gas station 30 kilometers west of the battlefield for our interview. "We have what they have," he says, in comparing Ukrainian materiel to that of the Russians. "But they have more: more artillery, more soldiers, more munitions." He says he was part of the defense of Klishchiivka, a village just south of Bakhmut. "We had to give it up," he says. "We ran out of shells."
Soldiers from a volunteer brigade in BakhmutFoto: Johanna Maria Fritz / Agentur Ostkreuz / DER SPIEGEL
The situation was quite a bit different until deep into January, he says. The commanders of the Wagner Group, the mercenary unit that serves the Kremlin, were sending wave after wave of released convicts into battle. "They were zombies," he says, using the exact same language as fighters from other sections of the front. "Sometimes, they didn’t even run, they just walked into the gunfire, fell, and the next wave followed." He says they took blood samples from the dead Wagner fighters and also had their canteens checked – an account similar to one given by an officer from another unit. In numerous cases, the Ukrainian elite soldier says, they found traces of amphetamines, which have a euphoric effect.
That, though, is no longer the case. Now, it is mostly Russian paratroopers who are fighting in Bakhmut, elite units full of experienced soldiers who collect their dead for burial and don’t simply leave them lying where they fall like the Wagner Group. "They advance in small groups, pushing forward in all directions and dig in." He pulls out his phone and shows a drone photo of a right-angled trench in the forest, with an additional square section on its long side. "Intelligent design, lots of angles," the soldier says, adding that such trenches are easy to defend. The Russians, he said, dug the trench in just a single night, working quietly with pickaxes. "They’re like moles." The method, he says, is the same as those used in World War I or II, "but it works."
A tank commander writes back from the center of Bakhmut who several weeks earlier had happily written that he had received a refurbished, decades-old T-64 tank. Prior to that, he said, he had been using a training tank that belonged to Kharkiv university. When asked whether he is dreaming of being assigned a Leopard 2 from Germany, he responds with a surprising no. "I just want to survive the coming weeks. How will a tank that might arrive in half a year help me? Especially if I don’t even know if the electronics will remain stable or whether it will break down under fire? I need simple things, but I need them now: night-vision capability, an infrared camera and more powerful target sights!"
His viewpoint is more the exception than the rule, with other Ukrainian fighters urgently hoping for more and newer tanks and guns. But a certain bitterness can sometimes be heard regarding the lack of understanding even from allied countries. Many in the West, they say, don’t understand that cannon barrels need to be swapped out after a few weeks of constant use. That vehicles get hit by enemy fire and that they run out of ammunition. That they lose drones every day. And, especially, people.
On a rise next to the M3 highway northwest of Bakhmut, military vehicles are backed up on this recent Monday morning. "The Russians could now target this road from the next hill," says Dmitriy, an engineer who is waiting for his commander to hand a Mitsubishi pickup over to him. "The last one was shot up yesterday when we were trying to recover our wounded." He is part of the Territorial Defense Forces, the units which were assembled from volunteers at the beginning of the war to defend the homeland. For quite some time now, though, they have been fighting everywhere in the country just like the regular army, except they aren’t as well equipped. "We started with 90 people, and were still 55 strong when we arrived in Bakhmut. Now, there are 30 of us." The others are wounded, dead or went deaf from explosions and lost their nerves. "In positions at the front, we have switched from three to two shifts."
it was only possible to visit soldiers fighting on the fronts lines in Bakhmut with the permission of the Ukrainian military and in the company of a press officer. How authentic are such arranged visits? To establish a realistic view of the conditions in and around Bakhmut, the DER SPIEGEL team spoke directly with soldiers and medics at positions just behind the front, at tank positions and on the side of the road. The team met with some fighters numerous times over the course of several weeks.
Soldiers can’t really hold up under the temperatures, which are often far below zero, for longer than 24 hours, says Dmitriy, with fingers growing too cold to shoot. "And even with two shifts, we are frequently only three or four men, which means we can’t carry our wounded away. Instead, cars have to drive up close to our positions, where they come under fire. We don’t have any armored vehicles. Sometimes, the 30th brigade will loan us a BMP. It’s been 11 months and we’re still driving around like a partisan unit."
A Humvee, a model from the U.S. military, speeds past on the top of the hill northwest of Bakhmut, turning around after a couple of minutes. A heavy military truck drives onward for a bit before stopping and turning back. They are all waiting on the road, with a Ukrainian jet roaring past just a few dozen meters above the deck, swerving to the right as though seeking to shake pursuers, before disappearing behind the trees. Dmitriy asks for a cigarette. He says he had stopped smoking before the war. Three fighters from his unit were killed yesterday, he says, by a direct hit on their bunker from a Russian 82-millimeter shell. "There weren’t even any wounded, the strike was so precise."
The Ukrainians are far stronger when they are able to take advantage of their technical superiority stemming from drone surveillance, satellite communication and the longer-range weaponry from the United States, Germany and elsewhere. Those elements can be deployed by a peculiar joint venture between the National Guard and Chartiya, a unit financed by businesspeople from Kharkiv. In a deep basement in central Bakhmut, the unit’s staff are sitting in front of several screens, following the images from a flying drone, with the military situation depicted next to the screens, with sectors marked in different colors and every ruin assigned a number.
Ukrainian fighters near Bakhmut: "This here is hell."Foto: Johanna Maria Fritz
The drone video glides above a damaged row of houses on the northeastern edge of Bakhmut. Desks can be seen below, along with printers, handbooks, power strips and, at the entrance, even shelves for helmets. "There!" The drone stops. On the screen, two Russian soldiers are walking through a courtyard, following tracks in the snow to a house. "Is that their headquarters?" the commander asks the room and into the phone. They have been seeing men going in and out here for several days.
The two Russians have disappeared into the house, which is marked on the screen with a thin cross. Hectic phone calls are made in the basement, with the secret service liaison officer going through observation lists on his tablet – until a cloud of smoke from an explosion erupts in silence on the monitor. From 20 or 30 kilometers away, an American M777 howitzer has struck the house, says a sergeant, who only provides his codename: Sonic.
The smoke dissipates and everyone stares into the screen. Nothing happens. Nobody comes out, nobody arrives to help those who may have been hit. "The Russians always wait until dark," says Sonic. "Those who are still alive are picked up." Then, the satellite connection breaks off and the image freezes. The commander swears. "Elon Musk. What does he want? To help us? Or play God?" Ever since the management of Musk’s Starlink satellite system announced that the technology could not be used for offensive operations, they say, the connections have become less stable.
A Monstrous Distortion of Human Normality
The walk through the snow half an hour later to the drone pilot base further toward the center of Bakhmut is rather daunting, particularly given the buzzing overhead. "That’s our drone," says Oleksandr, the navigator, and requests that we leave at least five meters of space between us and the person walking in front. "Just in case."
Killing has become normal here. Dying has become normal. The fact that all of this is a monstrous distortion of human normality is something that hardly anyone here talks about. Indeed, most soldiers speak only hesitantly – and only when asked – about their old lives, their families, former friends and the things that made them happy. Almost as if it would be risky to step too far away from the horror of their present, since returning would be that much more difficult.
Commander Serhiy sits in his room in Bakhmut.Foto: Johanna Maria Fritz / Agentur Ostkreuz / DER SPIEGEL
Oleksandr, 25, launches a drone in Bakhmut.Foto: Johanna Maria Fritz / Agentur Ostkreuz / DER SPIEGEL
Major Serhiy is sitting in his cubbyhole in another basement beneath the sea of rubble in Bakhmut. The room is just barely large enough for a cot; the hand-written service schedule is pinned to the wall. Serhiy says he has seen a lot in his life, "but this here is hell." A week ago, he says, they went out to recapture a position lost by the 93rd Brigade and Yevgeniy’s BMP unit, which had long since pulled out. "We advanced with 16 men, and even drove off the Russians at first. But then, they spent hours firing at us with grenade launchers, mortar, everything. Nine of us were wounded." It’s a miracle, he says, that everyone ultimately made it back alive.
"The wreck of an armored vehicle saved us." They were huddling behind it, he says, when a shell detonated five meters away from them. "Otherwise, we all would have been dead." Major Serhiy is 52 years old. And he was at the front of the attack. He looks at the schedule on the wall behind him. "We’ve been out five of the last seven days."
He retired once from the military in 2009, he says, and had other plans for his life. He became the deputy head of a brandy distillery in Odessa, where he is from. But he and the others, he says, believe in their country and would never give up, even if Russia was 30 times bigger than it is. "That’s not a country. It’s a monster. It doesn’t build anything, it only destroys."
In 1988, says Major Serhiy, he was sent to the border of Afghanistan as a Soviet soldier. In 2014, he was sent to the Donbas as a Ukrainian officer following the Russian invasion. He left the military again in 2021 after a leg injury. "Now, I’ve been pulled into a war for the third time."
Maybe the last time? He laughs hoarsely. "I don’t know."