In a smothering fog cloaking the woods of the Donbas, the sound of artillery takes on a spooky, disconnected quality.
Guns crack nearby, invisible among the skeletal branches. Shells whicker in the gloom towards the Russian lines around the key city of Bakhmut, distant thuds marking when they hit their targets. When the Russian guns fire back, it’s with a different sound, the crump of incoming fire.
Dug into a copse of thick scrub, a self-propelled howitzer of the 24th mechanised brigade waits for its orders as neighbouring guns fire, hidden too among the winter branches on a low ridge line.
The crew smoke, waiting for coordinates to fire to come over the walkie talkie. The fog means no drones are flying – but the relative paucity of incoming Russian shells makes the soldiers nervous.
“I don’t like it when it’s so quiet,” says Andrii, one of the crew. “It makes me tense.” Except it isn’t really quiet. “The fog is tactical,” he says in a grim joke, aware it is giving them respite. “For a while they weren’t firing back at this village. But now they know that we are here.”
He adds by way of explanation: “Eighty per cent of the population around here are pro-Russian. The ones who weren’t have left. Most of those who still remain are waiting for the Ruski mir [the Russian world] to come. It wasn’t like when we were fighting in Kherson. Then the civilian population seemed genuinely happy to see us.”
When fresh ammunition comes, the men manhandle the heavy, slippery shells through the mud to where their gun is hidden.
He recalls when his brigade was last in this area, during the summer, when any Ukrainian fire was met multiple times over from Russian guns. “They would fire at everything. Now they have become more sparing,” he adds, suggesting shortages of Russian ammunition.
But Russian shells do come. The day before two landed close to the house used as a command post by the battalion’s fire coordinator, shaking the windows of Natalia Hubar, one of the residents of the village.
The Observer meets her walking across the fields with a jar of milk in a shopping bag she has bought from a neighbour with a cow.
“What can I say?” she says, explaining she was a cook on a nearby military base before the Russians invaded and she lost her job. “Other people have it much worse. We have a wood stove to keep us warm but now the electricity has gone off in the last few days. We’ve had a lot of Russian shells. It’s scary when they’re close and shake the windows but my husband doesn’t want to leave.”
She speculates that a few days stuck in their cellar sheltering from shells might change his mind at last.
The infantry fight beyond these hills among the shattered streets and buildings of Bakhmut, and in the frozen muddy trenches, is one facet of this battle. The other is represented by the gun and rocket crews.
“They are still using old Soviet tactics,” explains Mikola, the fire coordinator, who supplies the target grids to the gun crews from the drone operators and forward fire controllers with the infantry. “We have more modern technology than the Russians so we can be more accurate and sparing with our ammunition.”
“We only shoot when we have coordinates,” explains Vasily Pavlokavic, aged 42, a short and stocky officer who commands the crew of the howitzer. As he is speaking a munition flies above with a loud hiss. Towards Bakhmut. Towards Ukraine’s current defining battle.
The intensity of the fighting in the east was conceded by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy last week as heavy fighting continued along a long section of the front.
“The frontline situation remains very difficult in the key areas of Donbas – Bakhmut, Soledar, Marinka, Kreminna. There is no area that has not been damaged by shells and fire. The occupiers have destroyed Bakhmut, and turned it into burnt ruins,” he said.
A city once home to 72,000, Bakhmut’s civilian population has dwindled to 12,000 over the past six months, surviving in basements and supplied by mobile grocery trucks which enter the city when they can.
Although it was first shelled by Russian forces in May, it only became a military objective for Moscow after Ukrainian forces withdrew from the nearby city of Popasna in August, with the Bakhmut sector now the only area of the frontline where Russia is still trying to advance.
The battle for Bakhmut, however, has become a struggle whose significance has been defined more by the intensity of the Russian efforts there, and by the Ukrainian determination to block any Russian advance, than any overwhelming strategic logic.
Once seen as a stepping stone on the road to the key Donbas cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, the efforts around Bakhmut appear to have become an end in themselves whose purpose, for now at least, is about re-establishing a sense of lost military prestige for the Kremlin after months of setbacks on the battlefield.
A widespread assessment that Russian forces have until mid-December before the onset of full winter conditions forces a slowing of their efforts has supplied one motive for the sense of urgency, even if many are baffled by the focus of Russian assaults.
Even if the Russians could take Bakhmut, beyond is less easy terrain spread across a vast hinterland of wooded hills and rivers and decaying post-industrial towns.
“We are scratching our heads,” a western official told AFP earlier this week when asked about Russia’s focus on Bakhmut. “We don’t know the answer.”
A recent assessment for the Institute for the Study of War was even more damning. “Even if Russian troops continue to advance toward and within Bakhmut, and even if they force a controlled Ukrainian withdrawal from the city, Bakhmut itself offers them little operational benefit.
“The costs associated with six months of brutal, grinding, and attrition-based combat around Bakhmut far outweigh any operational advantage that the Russians can obtain from taking Bakhmut.”
To gain control of the city, Russia has relied on mercenaries of the Wagner Group, including convicts, and newly mobilised soldiers to send waves of attackers against Ukrainian positions.
With Wagner forces used as the shock troops Ukraine’s defenders have become used to the reference in intercepted Russian radio traffic of “sending the musicians” – the Wagner troops – against their positions.
Both sides are paying a heavy pricein the battle, with some estimates of Russian combat deaths running at 60-100 every day, while a steady stream of casualties has been inflicted on Ukrainian defenders, almost all of the injuries relating to artillery shrapnel.
“They just send one group after another against our positions,” Sasha, a member of Ukraine’s 24th mechanised brigade fighting in the area, told the Observer.
“If the attack doesn’t succeed they’ll just try again in exactly the same way. The only strategy I can see at this point is that they want to take the city so they can claim some kind of victory after a year that has seen so many losses.
“We’ve noticed in the past two weeks an increase in shelling and infantry attacks as if they are in a rush to take Bakhmut. That also means that they are suffering ever greater losses. They are just throwing in meat.”
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of Russia’s Wagner group, has said his troops have primarily centred their efforts on demolishing the Ukrainian army there.
“Our task is not Bakhmut itself, but the destruction of the Ukrainian army and the reduction of its combat potential, which has an extremely positive effect on other areas, which is why this operation was dubbed the ‘Bakhmut meat grinder’.”
But the Wagner forces, and Prigozhin, are only part of a wider picture dominated by the figure of Sergei Surovikin, the overall commander of Russian forces in Ukraine. It was Surovikin who orchestrated the withdrawal of Russian forces over the Dnipro river in Kherson province and a redeployment of some of those forces to the battles in the east.
And while his forces have been pressing to advance, he has also been building a large complex of new defences on the eastern front both around Bakhmut as well as a 60km long line of trenches running from Svatove, further north, to the Russian border, suggesting that even if the Kremlin succeeds in Bakhmut it may try to stabilise the front for the winter.
For now, however, reinforcements from both sides are still continuing to arrive with the roads into the Donbas filled with tanks, armoured cars and missile launchers, and convoys of fuel and soldiers.
On his freezing hillside, Vasily Pavlokavic supervises the loading of the howitzer with shells.
“The war will only really be over when Russia disintegrates into its constituent republics. It doesn’t matter if it is Putin or someone else from the opposition – the threat will always be the same.”
Read Nore:In the ‘Bakhmut meat grinder’, deadlocked enemy forces slog it out