Far from Bakhmut, an intense fight in trenches and minefields
In the town of Krasnohorivka, grim Soviet-era apartment buildings stand nearly but not quite empty, with only a few residents remaining. Blocks on the southern edges of town are burned shells, windows shattered and awnings dangling in the winter breeze. Houses are largely shuttered; their tenants long gone. The central square is abandoned and eerie.
On Wednesday, a few civilians moved gingerly along icy pavements to a small store that seemed still to be open. A man cycled past with a load of firewood. Then a Russian rocket propelled grenade burst in the ice-grey sky above – a reminder of the potent threat carried by the enemy.
While the world’s attention has been focused on the city of Bakhmut as the vortex of the conflict in Ukraine, fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces has been as relentless elsewhere.
Areas south and west of the city of Donetsk – particularly the towns of Krasnohorivka and Vuhledar – have seen combat for much of the war: a punishing mix of trench warfare and longer-range rocket fire as each side probes for weaknesses. Progress here for the Russians is vital if they are to realize President Vladimir Putin’s goal of winning all of Donetsk region.
At the moment, they are going nowhere.
Just to the north of Krasnohorivka, an elaborate system of trenches marks Ukraine’s forward defensive positions. More than two meters deep in the dark brown earth, the trenches extend for hundreds of meters, and in some places are within half a kilometer of Russian positions.
In the distance, a huge snow-covered slag heap rises out of the mist, like a ski-slope in the wrong place.
A Ukrainian commander, who gave his first name as Bogdan, describes the situation as “controlled but tense” – a euphemism favored by the Ukrainian military for “very active.”
“The enemy is always searching for weak spots, but they don’t find them because we have a very durable defense,” Bogdan says. “Any enemy attempts are cut down immediately.”
His unit says it likes to take the fight to the enemy rather than wait to attack, to try to sap the Russians’ morale. As they fired Wednesday, the men occasionally yelled to each other: “Best job in the world.”
The winter months bring both advantages and problems, Bogdan says. The snow make it harder for Russians to camouflage their vehicles. But poor visibility – it was about one kilometer on Wednesday as the snow fell – hampers drone surveillance and targeting for both sides. Logistics such as supplying the front lines are easier when the ground is frozen.
The unit’s sergeant, call sign Ghost, says the Russian forces they are facing are a combination of Chechens, fighters from the Wagner private military company, the newly mobilized (known as “mobiks”) and professional soldiers.
One Ukrainian officer told CNN that Chechen fighters had penetrated the minefields that litter no-man’s land and attacked Ukrainian trenches. They wounded one soldier and captured another, but lost their way through the minefield on the way back and were killed. Most such efforts are made by small groups of saboteurs at night, he says, when the fighting tends to be more intense.
Daytime exchanges are hardly quiet. While CNN was present at the unit’s positions, it opened up with a Browning 50 caliber heavy machine gun as well as AK47s and rocket propelled grenades. In reply, Russian forces fired grenades and mortars.
While CNN is not permitted to reveal the unit’s name, it is one of the most accomplished in the Ukrainian military, and as determined as any to hold the line. Many of its officers have attended military academy and are professional soldiers. Two of its battalions fought in Mykolaiv in the south, where many of the men are from, while the rest of the brigade has worked on the long Donetsk front.
They have already served in nearby Mariinka, site of some of the fiercest close-quarters battles in the conflict. One of the men – call sign Zam – says they were often just a few meters from the enemy. Zam has had a baptism of fire; he was only mobilized two months ago.
Ghost says that when the Russians begin firing, his men open up with everything they have. The expenditure of ammunition is almost breathtaking.
“If we show strong resistance, they don’t advance,” Ghost says, adding, “You should never underestimate your enemy.”
As snow falls gently, blanketing the fields, the sound of Russian Grad rocket launchers is met by that of heavy Ukrainian artillery.
The battles will likely become even more intense with spring’s approach. Ukraine’s military expects a Russian offensive in February or March, possibly on multiple fronts, once the 300,000 men mobilized by Russia last autumn are fully deployed. President Vladimir Putin said in December that 150,000 of the mobilized were already in Ukraine.
The Ukrainians are planning counter-offensives of their own, according to senior officials.
Zam’s group is “ready for a spring offensive. It will be hard, but we will stand here for our land,” he says.
They have little choice. “Who will do it if not us?” Zam asks. It’s a common refrain among the soldiers here.
To withstand the expected assault, Zam says his unit and hundreds of Ukrainian brigades like it need more heavy weapons and ammunition, as well as anti-tank weapons “of the caliber to reach them and cover them with good fire.”
But even without them, he says, his unit will fight on. “What we have works; we have our friend Browning,” he says.