Ukrainian troops vow to retake Bakhmut
By Anna Voitenko
EASTERN UKRAINE (Reuters) - Ukrainian soldiers are vowing to take back the shattered city of Bakhmut but face a long, hard slog after encountering fierce Russian resistance while retaking two villages last week on strategic high ground nearby.
Bakhmut, captured by Russian forces in May, is Moscow's only big prize in more than a year of the war's bloodiest fighting, described by both sides as a meat grinder. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said this week that Kyiv would retake the city following the capture last week of Andriivka and Klishchiivka to the south.
Viktor, a 23-year-old machine gunner and sharpshooter in the Third Separate Assault Brigade that has led the Ukrainian counter-offensive on Bakhmut's southern outskirts, had no doubt that the ruined city would be recaptured.
But it won't be easy because Russia will still fight hard for it, demonstrated by the ferocity of the combat his unit had just endured in the outlying villages.
"As for Bakhmut: we will take it," he said. "It will be difficult. One shouldn't think that the counter-offensive and taking Bakhmut is easy: (that) we just flank them, close reinforcements routes and it is done. No, it is very difficult work. And it won't happen in a day or two or in a week."
Kyiv says the ruins of Bakhmut have only limited strategic value on their own, but that it still views the battle as pivotal because Russia has concentrated so many of its best troops there. Moscow says holding Bakhmut is key to capturing remaining territory in eastern provinces it claims to have annexed.
Ukrainian soldiers who spoke to Reuters at a location about 20 km (12 miles) from Andriivka described a bloody slog, costing lives for every metre, before they ultimately vanquished the village's Russian defenders.
"There was a line of woods we had attacked twice before," said Viktor, who gave no surname. "When we actually entered it, we had to go a further three kilometres with the enemy constantly shooting. There were drones and explosions causing a lot of damage to our 'brothers'."
"People should understand that along every metre in that line of woods, boys are dying, many are injured," he said,
His unit managed to advance through the woods, he said, but postponed its main assault until morning because it was dark.
"Our comrades from another unit came from one side. We came from the other. They (the Russians) understood there was nowhere to go so they came to terms with it," he said.
A soldier called Ilia, also 23, said there was simply no time to be afraid during the assault on Andriivka.
"We were taking prisoners. They came out and our guys tied them up and I had control of the situation," he said.
"I had to search the house with my comrade to make sure everything was 'clean' and at that moment a mortar round flew by very close, into one of the prisoners. I had a concussion. It was fine afterwards. Everyone who was there had a concussion."
(Writing by Ronald Popeski; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Peter Graff)