In the ruins of a soot-tarred apartment building and clouded in dust amid constant shelling, a small group of Ukrainian soldiers face a new type of Russian enemy: mercenaries, some of whom may be convicts sent to the front lines. .
The battle is as heated as it is crucial around the city of Bakhmut. Russian positions are within 200 meters of the Ukrainian military unit that CNN has joined. The unit is entangled in a gruesome artillery duel, hiding in basements and using commercially purchased drones as its best line of defense and intelligence.
Through broken windows, from rooms strewn with rubble, Ukrainian soldiers look over the adjacent field, pockmarked with numerous blackened craters from artillery impacts.
“They can see us here,” a Ukrainian soldier said, pointing into the distance.
This is a new type of fighter on the front line. Moscow’s manpower has dwindled after as many as 80,000 casualties, according to US officials, turning Moscow into the country’s sprawling private sector of mercenaries, namely the Wagner group.
The Wagner group is reportedly headed by the man known as “Putin’s Chef”, Yevgeny Prigozhin. A man befitting Prigozhin’s appearance recently appeared in a video at a Russian prison yard, praising the inmates on the virtues of joining his Wagner group and fighting on the front lines.
Here in Bakhmut, that system is used relentlessly. This city has been the focus of Russian forces for the past few weeks, even as they abandon their positions around Kharkov and appear to be struggling to hold out elsewhere. According to multiple Russian media reports, Wagner mercenaries have been deployed in that battle and have made gains on the eastern fringes of the city.
The mercenaries’ attacks are often devastatingly insensitive: The Ukrainians tell CNN that the Wagner fighters are charging at them with small arms attacks, causing the Ukrainians to fire at them to protect their positions. The gunfire then betrays where the Ukrainians are, allowing the Russian artillery to aim more accurately.
The attacks are regular and the shelling is almost constant.
‘We see an enemy mortar unit. They are preparing to fire at us,” said one drone operator, looking into his monitor.
During CNN’s time with this unit on Tuesday, grenades intermittently landed nearby, at one point the walls of the basement shelter shook. Here, a Ukrainian officer, known by his callsign “Price,” tells CNN about the last Russian they captured.
“We kind of fight with those musicians,” he said, referring to the Wagner group, named after the composer.
“There was a Wagner we caught. He was a convict, from Russia – I don’t remember exactly where from. It was getting shot or vomited for him. They act professionally, not like the usual infantry units,” he said.
“The real problem is artillery, it’s very precise,” he added.
As he spoke, another grenade struck close to the hideout.
Bakhmut’s city center is now littered with large craters from Russian shelling, the main streets have been torn apart and the stadium’s seats ripped in half.
Analysts believe the city could provide Moscow with a strategic position in the Donbass from which it could advance further north to Sloviansk and Kramatorsk – providing a much-needed strategic victory at a time of mounting losses.
At a series of trenches on another front line, buried in the woods, Martyn, another Ukrainian officer, agreed.
“[The Russians] retreated elsewhere and they need a victory, something important, so they’re throwing their troops here,” he said.
“Of course we have casualties, not today in our unit. But you cannot escape being killed or injured, sometimes seriously.”
These losses have been intensely personal. “I lost my good friend five days after we got here. His nickname was Dancer,’ he said. As with so many callsigns or nicknames, Martyn has no idea why his friend got these.
Around the city, local life is interrupted by huge explosions from the shelling. A local, Andrei, has lost eyes and dark talking about the explosions, the lack of electricity, water and tranquility.
Still, he said of his street: “It’s not that bad, only every second house has been destroyed.”
Helping many people live a life is Natalia, who sells potatoes – half a ton of them in this one morning alone. “Who knows where the shelling is coming or going,” she said, as another loud explosion made her laugh nervously.
“Don’t be afraid,” she added.
On Wednesday, the streets of Bakhmut appeared to be army and shelling on the eastern edge of the city appeared to be intensifying, with Ukrainian guns aimed at Russian positions, it seemed.
An apartment building, already hit once, was still smoking after another rocket ripped through all four floors. Outside, soldiers walked anxiously into the street to inspect the damage. Military vehicles whizzed through the streets.
Slowly, walking home with food in a cart with loud and squeaky wheels, retired Maria walked, her eyes covered by large sunglasses.
“With God you have no fear. And you can’t feel fear in your own land either,” said Maria. More pops broke through the shrill squeak of her rusty wheels.