In the ruins of a sooty, dust-clouded apartment block amid constant shelling, a small group of Ukrainian soldiers face a new kind of Russian enemy: mercenaries, some of whom may be convicts sent to the front lines.
The battle around the city of Bakhmut is as hot as it is decisive. The Russian positions are within 200 meters of the Ukrainian military unit reported by CNN. The unit is caught in a massive artillery duel, sheltered in basements and using commercially purchased drones as their best line of defense and intelligence.
Through broken windows, rubble-strewn rooms, Ukrainian soldiers look out onto the adjacent field, marked by countless craters blackened by artillery strikes.
“They can see us here,” said a Ukrainian soldier pointing into the distance.
It’s a new type of frontline fighter. Moscow’s workforce has dwindled after 80,000 deaths, according to US officials, and Moscow has turned to the country’s vast private mercenary sector, namely the Wagner group.
The Wagner group is said to be led by the man known as “Putin’s chef” Yevgeny Prigozhin. A man who looks exactly like Prigozhin recently appeared in a video in a Russian prison yard, extolling the virtues of joining his Wagner group and fighting on the front lines to inmates.
Here in Bakhmut that system is put into ruthless action. The city has been the focus of Russian forces in recent weeks, although they have abandoned positions around Kharkiv and are struggling to hold on elsewhere. Wagner mercenaries have expanded into the fray, according to multiple Russian media reports, and are making gains on the city’s eastern edges.
Mercenary attacks are often brutal: Ukrainians tell CNN that Wagner fighters attack them with small arms attacks, with Ukrainians firing back to protect their positions. The shots reveal where the Ukrainians are, allowing the Russian artillery to play with greater precision.
Attacks are regular, and shelling is almost constant.
“We see an enemy mortar unit. They are preparing to shoot at us,” said a drone operator looking at the monitor.
During CNN’s time with the unit on Tuesday, shells landed intermittently nearby, at one point shaking the walls of the basement shelter. Here, a Ukrainian officer, known by the call sign “Price,” tells CNN about the latest Russian captured.
“We’re struggling a little bit with those musicians,” he said, referring to the Wagner group named after the composer.
“There was a Wagner guy we caught. He was a convict, from Russia – I don’t remember exactly where. For him it was shoot or surrender. They act professionally, not like regular infantry units,” he said.
“The real problem is the artillery, it’s really accurate,” he added.
As he spoke, another shell hit near the shelter.
The center of the city of Bakhmut is littered with large craters from Russian shells, the main streets are broken and the seats of the stadium in two.
Analysts believe the city could give Moscow a strategic position in the Donbass from which to advance further north towards Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, and provide a much-needed strategic victory in a time of spiraling losses.
In some trenches on another front line, buried in the woods, Martyn, another Ukrainian officer, agreed.
“[The Russians] they need to retire somewhere else and win, something significant, so they throw their forces here,” he said.
“Of course, we have layoffs, not today in our unit. But you can’t avoid the dead or injured, sometimes seriously injured.’
These losses have been deeply personal. “I lost my dear friend, five days after coming here. His nickname was Dancer”, he said. As with so many callsigns or nicknames, Martyn has no idea why his friend got this one.
Around the city, local life is filled with massive shell explosions. One of the locals, Andrei, has lost and darkened eyes talking about the explosions, lack of electricity, water and peace.
However, he said of his street: “It’s not bad, only every second house is damaged.”
Helping many to make a living is Natalia, she sells potatoes, half a ton of them this morning alone. “Who knows where the light bulbs come from or where they go,” he said, as another loud explosion made him laugh nervously.
“Don’t be afraid,” he added.
On Wednesday, the streets of Bakhmut appeared emptier and shelling increased on the eastern edge of the city, as Ukrainian weapons apparently hit Russian positions.
A block of flats, already hit once, was burning after another rocket tore through four floors. Soldiers frantically walked the street outside, inspecting the damage. Military vehicles drove through the streets.
Slowly, as the food went home on a trolley with loud, creaking wheels, there was pensioner Maria, her eyes covered by large sunglasses.
“With God you have no fear. And you can’t feel fear even in your land,” said Maria. More explosions broke through the sharp screeching of its rusty wheels.