Far from Bakhmut, an intense fight in trenches and minefields

Far from Bakhmut, an intense fight in trenches and minefields

Krasnohorivka, Ukraine CNN —

In the town of Krasnohorivka, gloomy Soviet-era apartment buildings stand almost, but not entirely, empty, with only a few residents left. City blocks on the southern edge of town are burnt shells, windows are shattered, and awnings dangle in the winter breeze. The houses are largely closed; their tenants are long gone. The central square is deserted and spooky.

On Wednesday, some civilians made their way cautiously along icy sidewalks to a small shop that appeared to be still open. A man rode past with a load of firewood. Then a Russian rocket-propelled grenade exploded in the icy sky – a reminder of the powerful threat carried by the enemy.

While the world’s attention was focused on the town of Bakhmut as the whirlwind of conflict in Ukraine, fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces was just as relentless elsewhere.

Areas south and west of the city of Donetsk — particularly the towns of Krasnohorivka and Vuhledar — were the scene of fighting for most of the war: a punitive mix of trench warfare and longer-range rocket fire as both sides searched for weaknesses. Progress here is crucial for the Russians if they are to realize President Vladimir Putin’s goal of conquering the entire Donetsk region.

They’re not going anywhere at the moment.

Just 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 hundreds of meters and in some places as much as half a kilometer from Russian positions.

In the distance, a huge snow-covered slag heap rises out of the fog, like a misplaced ski slope.

A Ukrainian commander, who gave his first name Bogdan, described the situation as “controlled but tense” – a euphemism the Ukrainian military prefers for “very active”.

“The enemy is always looking for weak points, but they don’t find them because we have a very robust defense,” says Bogdan. “Any enemy attempt will be crushed immediately.”

His unit says they’d rather take the fight to the enemy than wait to attack to try and hurt Russian morale. When they fired on Wednesday, the men occasionally shouted to each other: “Best job in the world.”

The winter months bring both benefits and problems, says Bogdan. The snow makes it difficult for the Russians to camouflage their vehicles. But poor visibility – it was about a kilometer on Wednesday when the snow fell – is hampering drone surveillance and targeting for both sides. Logistics like supplying the front lines are easier when the ground is frozen.

The unit’s sergeant, with the callsign Ghost, says the Russian forces they are facing are a combination of Chechens, fighters from the private military company Wagner, the newly mobilized (known as “Mobiks”) and professional soldiers.

A Ukrainian officer told CNN that Chechen fighters entered the minefields littering no man’s land and attacked Ukrainian trenches. They wounded one soldier and captured another, but lost their way through the minefield on their way back and were killed. Most of these efforts are undertaken by small groups of saboteurs at night, he says, when fighting tends to be more intense.

Stock markets are rarely quiet during the day. While CNN was present at the unit’s positions, it opened up with a Browning 50 caliber heavy machine gun and AK47 and rocket-propelled grenades. In response, Russian forces fired shells and mortars.

Though CNN isn’t allowed to reveal the unit’s name, it’s one of the most experienced in Ukraine’s military and as determined as anyone to hold the line. Many of their officers graduated from the military academy and are professional soldiers. Two of their battalions fought at Mykolayiv in the south, where many of the men are from, while the rest of the brigade worked on the long Donetsk front.

They have already served in nearby Mariinka, the scene of some of the conflict’s fiercest hand-to-hand combat. One of the men – callsign Zam – says they were often within yards of the enemy. Zam has had a baptism of fire; he was mobilized just two months ago.

Ghost says if the Russians start shooting, his men will open everything they have. The amount of ammunition is nothing short of breathtaking.

“If we put up strong resistance, they won’t advance,” says Ghost, adding, “You should never underestimate your enemy.”

As the snow gently falls and covers the fields, the sound of Russian Grad rocket launchers meets the sound of heavy Ukrainian artillery.

The fighting is likely to intensify as spring approaches. The Ukrainian military expects a Russian offensive in February or March, possibly on multiple fronts, once the 300,000 troops Russia mobilized last fall are fully deployed. President Vladimir Putin said in December that 150,000 of those mobilized were already in Ukraine.

According to high-ranking officials, the Ukrainians are planning their own counter-offensives.

Zam’s group is “ready for a spring offensive. It’s going to be tough, but we’re going to stand up for our country here,” he says.

You have little choice. “Who does it if not us?” asks Zam. It’s a common refrain among the soldiers here.

To withstand the expected attack, Zam says his unit and hundreds of similar Ukrainian brigades 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 continue to fight. “What we have works; we have our friend Browning,” he says.

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