Russian mercenaries bombard Bakhmut as Moscow searches for a win

Bakhmut, Ukraine

In the rubble of an apartment building covered in soot from constant shelling, a small group of Ukrainian soldiers come face-to-face with a new type of Russian enemy: mercenaries, some of whom may be criminals sent to the front.

The battle is fierce and crucial around the city of Bakhmut. The Russian position is less than 200 meters from the Ukrainian military unit that CNN has joined. The unit got caught up in a horrific firefight, hiding in basements and using commercially-purchased drones as the best line of defense and intelligence.

Ukrainian soldiers peered through shattered windows from rubble-strewn houses, and the surrounding battlefield was riddled with countless craters blackened by shelling.

“They can see us here,” said one Ukrainian soldier, pointing into the distance.

This is the new fighter jet for the front line. Moscow’s manpower has dwindled after as many as 80,000 casualties, according to U.S. officials, leading Moscow to turn to the country’s sprawling private mercenary arm, the Wagner Group.

Allegedly, the Wagner Group was formed by a “Putin’s Chef”, Yevgeny Prigozin. Recently, a man who matched Prigozin well appeared in a video from a Russian prison yard, extolling the virtues of joining his Wagnerian organization and fighting on the front lines to prisoners.

The city of Bakhmut, where the fighting was fierce and vital. The Russian position is less than 200 meters from the Ukrainian military unit that CNN has joined.

In Bachmut, the system was thrown into relentless action. The city has been a focal point for Russian forces over the past few weeks, even as they have abandoned positions around Kharkov and appear to be struggling to gain a foothold elsewhere. According to multiple reports in the Russian media, Wagner mercenaries have been deployed to the fight and are making progress on the city’s eastern edge.

Mercenary attacks are often ruthless: Ukrainians told CNN that Wagner fighters attacked them with light weapons, causing Ukrainians to fire on them to protect their positions. The gunfire then revealed the Ukrainian’s position, allowing the Russian artillery to target more accurately.

The attacks were regular, and the shelling was almost constant.

“We saw an enemy mortar unit. They were about to fire on us,” a drone operator said, looking at his monitor.

A Ukrainian military officer known by the callsign

During CNN’s work with the unit on Tuesday, shells fell nearby intermittently, in one instance shaking the walls of the basement shelter. Here, a Ukrainian officer with the callsign “Price” tells CNN about the last Russian they captured.

“We’re having an argument with those musicians,” he said, referring to the Wagner band named after the composer.

“We caught a Wagner. He was a criminal, from Russia – I don’t remember exactly where. For him it was shot or surrender. They acted professionally, not like the usual infantry units,” he said.

A captured Russian prisoner, recruited to fight.

“The real problem is the artillery, which is very accurate,” he added.

As he spoke, another shell slammed into the vicinity of the shelter.

Bakhmut’s city centre is now littered with large craters caused by Russian shelling, with main streets torn apart and stadium seats torn in half.

Analysts believe the city could provide Moscow with a strategic position in the Donbass, from there to push further north to Slovyansk and Kramatorsk – and provide a much-needed strategy amid mounting losses victory.

The main street in Bahmut has been demolished.

In a series of trenches on the other front, buried in the forest, another Ukrainian officer, Martin, agreed.

“[The Russians] To retreat elsewhere, they need a victory, which is a big deal, so they send their troops here,” he said.

“Of course we have casualties, not in our unit today. But you can’t avoid casualties, sometimes serious ones.”

These losses are very personal. “Five days after we were here, I lost my good friend. His nickname was Dancer,” he said. Like there are so many callsigns or nicknames, Martyn doesn’t know why his friends get this.

Around the city, local life was interrupted by huge explosions from shelling. The eyes of Andrei, a local, are hopeless and dark, linked to a lack of explosions, electricity, water and calm.

Still, he said of his street, “It’s not bad, it’s just that every other house is destroyed.”

Helping many people make ends meet is Natalia, who sells potatoes – half a tonne on this morning alone. “Who knew the shelling would come and go,” she said, and another loud bang made her laugh nervously.

“Don’t be afraid,” she added.

The streets of Bakhmut appeared empty on Wednesday, shelling on the eastern edge of the city appeared to intensify and Ukrainian guns appeared to be aimed at Russian positions.

An apartment building that has been hit is still smoking after another rocket destroyed all four floors. Soldiers anxiously milled the streets outside, inspecting the damage. Military vehicles roared down the street.

More slowly, pensioner Maria sat in a trolley with food, which was loud and squeaky, her eyes covered by large sunglasses.

“With God, you have nothing to fear. In your own land, you have no fear,” Maria said. More explosions drilled out from the screeching screeching of her rusted wheels.

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