Russian mercenaries bomb Bakhmut (Putin needs a victory)

Vladimir Putin needs a victory to counter the recent spiral of losses. Wagner Group focuses on the attack on this city in Ukraine.

In the ruins of a sooty apartment block with clouds of dust in the midst of constant bombing, a small group of Ukrainian soldiers come face to face with a new type of Russian enemy: mercenaries, some of whom may be condemned who are sent to the front line.

The battle around the city of Bakhmut is as heated as it is crucial. The Russian positions are located 200 meters from the Ukrainian military unit that CNN has joined. The unit is caught up in a terrifying artillery duel, taking shelter in basements and using commercially purchased drones as their best line of defense and intelligence.

Through broken windows, from inside rooms littered with rubble, Ukrainian soldiers look across the neighboring field, scarred with countless craters blackened from artillery impacts.

“They can see us here,” says a Ukrainian soldier, pointing in the distance.

This is a new type of frontline fighter. Moscow’s military numbers dwindled after 80,000 casualties, according to US officials, prompting Moscow to turn to the country’s expanding mercenary private sector, namely the Wagner group.

The Wagner group is allegedly run by the man known as “Putin’s Chef”, Yevgeny Prigozhin. A man matching Prigozhin’s appearance recently appeared in a video in a Russian prison yard, extolling prisoners the virtues of joining his Wagner group and fighting on the front lines.

The city of Bakhmut, where the battle is as heated as it is crucial. The Russian positions are located 200 meters from the Ukrainian military unit that CNN has joined. CNN image

Here, in Bakhmut, this system is relentlessly set in motion. This city has been the focus of Russian forces in recent weeks, even as they abandon positions around Kharkiv and appear to struggle to hold their ground elsewhere. Wagner mercenaries have been singled out for this fight, according to multiple Russian media reports, and have been making gains around the city’s eastern limits.

The mercenaries’ attacks are often devastatingly harsh: Ukrainians tell CNN that Wagner guerrillas rush to attack them with small arms attacks, prompting Ukrainians to fire at them to protect their positions. The gunfire then suggests where the Ukrainians are, allowing Russian artillery to attack with greater precision.

The attacks are regular and the bombings are almost constant.

“We see an enemy mortar unit. They are getting ready to fire on us,” says an aircraft operator, looking at his monitor.

A Ukrainian official known as ‘Price’ speaks to CNN. CNN image

During the time CNN was with this unit on Tuesday, bombs landed intermittently nearby, shaking the walls of the basement shelter in one spot. Here, a Ukrainian officer known as “Price” tells CNN about the last Russian they took prisoner.

“We are fighting a little with these musicians”, he says, referring to the Wagner group, which uses the composer’s name.

“There was a guy from Wagner that we caught. He was a convict, from Russia – I don’t remember exactly where. For him it was ‘you get shot or surrender’. They act professionally, not like the usual infantry units.” describe.

A captured Russian convict, who was recruited to fight. CNN image

“The real problem is the artillery, it’s really accurate,” he adds.

As he speaks, another bomb hits near the shelter.

Bakhmut’s city center is now littered with large craters from Russian bombing, with the main streets torn apart, and the stadium seats split in two.

Analysts believe the city could provide Moscow with a strategic position in the Donbass from which they could advance further north towards Sloviansk and Kramatorsk – and offer a much-needed strategic victory at a time of spiraling losses.

The main streets of Bakhmut were destroyed. CNN image

In a series of trenches on another front line, buried in the forests, Martyn, another Ukrainian officer, agrees.

“[Os russos] they have retreated to the other side and they need a victory, something significant, so they throw forces here,” he says.

“Of course we have casualties, not today in our unit. But you can’t avoid dead or injured, sometimes seriously injured.”

These losses have been intensely personal. “I lost my close friend five days after we came here. His nickname was Dancer,” he says. As with so many call signs or nicknames, Martyn has no idea why his friend took this one.

Across the city, local life is punctuated with massive blasts from the bombings. A local resident, Andrei, has dark, desolate eyes that speak of explosions, lack of electricity, water and calm.

Still, he says of his street: “It’s not that bad, just every second a house is ruined.”

Helping many to make a living is Natalia, selling potatoes – half a ton of them this morning alone. “Who knows where the bombings are going or coming from,” she says, just as another thunderous explosion has her laughing nervously.

“Don’t be afraid,” he added.

“Don’t be afraid,” says Natalia, a potato seller. CNN image

On Wednesday, the streets of Bakhmut appeared emptier and shelling appeared to intensify in the eastern end of the city, with Ukrainian guns apparently aimed at Russian positions.

An apartment block, already hit once, was still smoking after another missile destroyed its four floors. Soldiers anxiously search the street outside, inspecting the damage. Military vehicles passed through the streets.

Slower, walking home with food on a cart with squeaky, squeaky wheels, is retired Maria, her eyes covered by large sunglasses.

“With God you are not afraid. And in your own land you cannot be afraid either”, says Maria. More explosion noises cut through the screeching squeak of its rusted wheels.