Ukrainian commandos prepare Bakhmut skirmish

Crouching in a small forest, the leader of a Ukrainian commando unit briefs his troops on their mission to counter the Russian offensive to take the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.

The special forces are trying to defend the nearby village of Grygorivka in the Donetsk region, about 10 kilometers (six miles) northwest of Bakhmut, which has come under heavy Russian shelling.

If the soldiers of Moscow and the Russian mercenary group Wagner took the village, it would help them close the pincer around Bakhmut, the center of the invasion’s longest and bloodiest battle.

“We are defending positions on the heights near the village. Our mission is to stop the enemy attack and provide artillery support to our infantry,” the commander told AFP, without giving his name.

Dressed in cagoules and helmets and wearing small camouflage backpacks, the elite troops are armed with TAR-21 assault rifles – an Israeli-designed weapon manufactured under license in Ukraine.

There is almost no silence that lasts more than 10 seconds near Bakhmut. Ukrainian artillery and powerful heavy booms of nearby Russian shelling reverberate constantly.

Just a few kilometers west of Grygorivka, close to the front line, Ukrainian troops have “repulsed numerous enemy attacks” on the villages of Orikhovo-Vasylivka and Bogdanivka, Ukraine’s general staff said Thursday morning.

– ‘Difficult situation’ –

“The situation is tricky, but we have it under control,” says the 45-year-old command chief during a pause between grenades exploding a few hundred meters away.

“We are able to fight, that’s for sure, but the enemy always has the advantage in terms of artillery. We suffer losses because of their huge amount of artillery. That’s why we have to go back, but sometimes we go forward,” says the officer.

“They are trying to take Bogdanivka and then Chasiv Yar to close the pocket around Bakhmut,” he added.

Chasiv Yar, a small town immediately west of Bakhmut, is also now under threat from the Russian troops closing their heels.

White phosphorus ammunition was fired at Chasiv Yar from Russian positions this week, setting vegetation in an uninhabited area on fire.

In early January, Russian troops cut the highway connecting Bakhmut to Sloviansk – a major regional hub close to the city of Kramatorsk – and the front has since stabilized.

In the small town of Pryvillya, about two kilometers from the front, a soldier named “Romeo” who commands a Ukrainian post says, “We’re holding this position.”

The Russians “have been fighting for about a week now. They are pushing towards Bakhmut. That is their priority,” he told AFP.

– Attack drone –

Here the artillery is quieter and the main activity is drones.

Max, 40, a drone operator nicknamed “Aerobomber”, sits alone in his truck beside the road, remote control in hand, eyes fixed on a screen.

He just launched a small drone loaded with a hand grenade. The drone flies towards a forest about four miles from Russian positions.

On the screen, the landscape below is clearly visible. The drone reaches the forest and hovers about 20 meters above the ground.

But close to the target, Max loses control. The drone drops the grenade and misses.

The Russians “encrypt the drone, which breaks the signal between the drone and the remote,” he says.

“When the drone loses control, it descends and they fire on it,” explains the operator, after he managed to repair his drone with bullet scratches.

He says he lost three drones the day before, bringing the total to 62 since the invasion began.

“Russia has been preparing for this war for a long time and has developed its electronic warfare forces,” said “Zyma,” or winter, the head of a unit of drone operators in southern Ukraine.

Russians use various techniques to drown out the signal to the drone or create a false signal that sends it the wrong way, he says.

“Each of us does what he can, where he can. Everyone tries to be as effective as possible. This technology allows us to set goals (to kill) 10 Orcs (Russians) per day,” says the “Aerobomber” .

“I feel good because I see the results of my work. I can use my time and ammunition very efficiently. That makes me happy,” he added.


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