Inside Bakhmut, the battered eastern Ukrainian city that is the site of one of the longest-running battles of Russia’s war in Ukraine, urban combat is raging in pitched, block-by-block fights for control. And Russian forces have been slowly advancing.
But in farm fields and villages on Bakhmut’s outskirts, Ukrainian military officials say Kyiv’s forces have fought the Russian Army essentially to a standstill in the battle for two key roads, the T504 highway and a route known as the 506.
Six weeks after the start of a Ukrainian operation to reinforce supply lines outside Bakhmut and protect the roads, Ukrainian military officials say they have thwarted, at least for now, a Russian effort to sever those roads and surround the city.
To the southwest of Bakhmut, Ukrainian forces have fought hard to protect the T504 highway. Ukraine’s soldiers made a tactical retreat of a few hundred yards and now hold a commanding position in a trench overlooking a sunflower field. The field is one of dozens the Ukrainians must defend along the front to the south of the road.
A visit there on Friday found the line of contact running through rolling farm fields cut by ravines, with groves of trees and small meadows covered in green grass and small purple wildflowers, and dotted with craters from mortars.
“Every day is the same,” said a Ukrainian soldier who asked to be identified only by rank and name, Pvt. Ruslan, in keeping with Ukrainian military rules. Russians fire mortars or send small groups of troops forward, nothing more, he said.
“They check us, ‘Hey, guys, are you still there?’” Private Ruslan said of the fighting. “When they understand that yes, we are here, we will fight, they back off.”
In late February, Ukraine was close to losing the battle for Bakhmut, according to an assessment in a batch of what appear to be classified operational briefs prepared by the Pentagon and Joint Staff and leaked on social media this month. Senior U.S. officials have said the Federal Bureau of Investigation has opened an inquiry into the leak.
At the time, two Russian flanking maneuvers to the northwest and southwest of the city were close to encircling Bakhmut. A single access road, the 506, remained open for Ukrainian forces and the few civilians still in the city, but it was under Russian artillery fire. Ukraine’s commanding general in the east, Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, called the route the “last breathing tube.”
Ukrainian commanders decided to reinforce the defenses of the roads rather than retreat, according to the leaked documents. Ukraine’s army deployed many soldiers to the fight for Bakhmut that it had hoped to hold in reserve for a counteroffensive anticipated in the coming weeks or months, and its forces have sustained heavy casualties.
By late last week, fighting to the south of the T504 highway had settled into an almost predictable routine of mortar strikes and nighttime raids, neither of which threaten a breakthrough, Ukrainian soldiers said. That has secured the lifeline of mud-spattered, artillery-cratered asphalt for resupplying ammunition and evacuating wounded Ukrainian troops.
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