In the ruins of a soot-soaked and dust-covered apartment block amid constant shelling, a small group of Ukrainian soldiers come face-to-face with a new breed of Russian enemy: mercenaries, some of whom may be convicts envoys. in front.
The battle is as heated as it is crucial around the city of Bakhmut. The Russian positions are 200 meters from the Ukrainian military unit that CNN has joined. The unit gets caught up in a gruesome artillery duel, taking refuge in basements and using commercially purchased drones as the best line of defense and intelligence.
Through broken windows, from inside rubble-strewn rooms, Ukrainian soldiers peer out over the neighboring countryside, pockmarked with countless craters blackened by artillery shell blasts.
“You can see us here,” said a Ukrainian soldier, pointing into the distance.
This is a new type of frontline fighter. Moscow’s workforce has dwindled after as many as 80,000 casualties, according to US officials, prompting Moscow to turn to the country’s growing private mercenary sector, namely the Wagner group.
The Wagner group is allegedly run by the man known as “Putin’s Chef”Yevgeny Prigozhin. A man resembling Prigozhin recently appeared on video in a Russian prison yard, extolling to prisoners the virtues of joining his Wagner group and fighting on the front lines.
Here in Bakhmut is where that system is put into ruthless action. 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’s mercenaries have been deployed in that fight, according to multiple Russian media reports, and have been advancing on the eastern edges of the city.
Mercenary attacks are often devastatingly insensitive: The Ukrainians told CNN that Wagner’s fighters rushed them with small arms attacks, prompting the Ukrainians to fire on them to protect their positions. The shots then reveal where the Ukrainians are, allowing the Russian artillery to target more accurately.
The attacks are regular and the shelling is almost constant.
“We see an enemy mortar unit. They are preparing to shoot us,” a drone operator said, looking at his monitor.
During CNN’s time with this unit on Tuesday, shells intermittently fell nearby, at one point rattling the walls of the basement shelter. Here, a Ukrainian officer, known by his “Price” call sign, tells CNN about the last Russian they took prisoner.
“We’re fighting a little bit with those musicians,” he said, referring to the Wagner group, which is named after the composer.
“There was a guy from Wagner that we caught. He was a convict, from Russia, I don’t remember exactly where. It was get shot or surrender for him. They act professionally, not like the usual infantry units,” he said.
“The real problem is the artillery, it’s really accurate,” he added.
As he spoke, another shell crashed near the shelter.
Bakhmut’s city center is now riddled with large craters from Russian bombing, with main streets shattered and stadium seats split in two.
Analysts believe the city could provide Moscow with a strategic position in the Donbass from which to push further north towards Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, offering a much-needed strategic victory at a time of spiraling losses.
In a series of trenches on another front line, buried in the woods, Martyn, another Ukrainian officer, agreed.
“[The Russians] they retreated to another side and they need a victory, something significant, so they throw forces here”, he said.
“Of course we have casualties, not today in our unit. But you can’t avoid being killed 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 said. As with so many call signs or nicknames, Martyn has no idea why his friend has this one.
Around the city, local life is marked by the massive explosions of the bombing. A local, Andrei, has sad and dark eyes that speak of the explosions, the lack of electricity, water and calm.
Still, he said of his street: “It’s not too bad, only every other house is in ruins.”
Helping many to make a living is Natalia, selling potatoes, half a ton of potatoes this morning alone. “Who knows where the bombings are coming or going,” she said, as another loud bang made her giggle.
“Don’t be afraid,” he added.
On Wednesday, the streets of Bakhmut seemed emptier and shelling seemed to intensify on the eastern edge of the city, with Ukrainian guns reportedly aimed at Russian positions.
An apartment block, already hit once, was still smoking after another rocket tore through all four floors. Soldiers milled anxiously in the street outside, surveying the damage. Military vehicles hummed through the streets.
Slower, walking home with food in a cart with noisy, screeching wheels, was retired Maria, her eyes covered by large sunglasses.
“With God you are not afraid. And in your own land you can’t be afraid either,” Maria said. More exploding noises broke the shrill screech of her rusty wheels.