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Home Feeds Defending Ukraine’s ‘highway of life’ — the last road out of Bakhmut

Defending Ukraine’s ‘highway of life’ — the last road out of Bakhmut

A Ukrainian-operated Humvee on the road between Kostyantynivka and Bakhmut on Thursday. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)


KOSTYANTYNIVKA, Ukraine — The battle for Bakhmut raged behind them, but the tank crew had a more immediate concern: finding a patch of asphalt on the last viable road out of the embattled city to fix their clattering T-64 without falling into a quagmire of thigh-high black mud.

The tank engine quit its smoky growl on a solid chunk of Highway T0504, and two crewmen leaped off to inspect the tracks. They had run over an explosive in the neighboring village of Ivanivske, a soldier explained, adding a string of expletives, and needed to make quick repairs to return to the fight. With thwacks of a spade and clinks of a hammer, the crew popped off a few teeth inside the tread. One soldier suggested slowly driving forward to check the gears were properly seated.

“What do you mean slow?” another snapped back. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” The driver smoked a cigarette as armored vehicles raced past them toward the razed eastern city, where the war’s most intense battle rages on.

Russia has committed hordes of soldiers and mercenaries to capturing Bakhmut. Those fighters have pushed Ukrainian troops to the city’s western edge and, like an alligator’s maw, are closing in from the south and north, aiming to encircle and annihilate them.

The maneuver has cut off virtually all roads — except Highway T0504, a two-lane hardball that connects to Bakhmut’s southwestern edge and is so vital that troops have branded it “the highway of life.”

“It’s the only road left in which we can evacuate the wounded, evacuate the dead,” said Maj. Oleksandr Pantsernyi, the commander of the 24th Separate Assault Battalion, one of the units responsible for defending the corridor. Just as important is the road’s role in sustaining the fight, he said, by enabling the movement of ammunition, water and fresh troops east.

“If we don’t do our job, the defense of Bakhmut will last for a day or two,” Pantsernyi, 26, said. “And all people who are there will stay there forever.”

Russia’s forces also know the road’s importance, Ukrainian soldiers said, and have tried to shred it with artillery and force their enemy into the mud. Although there is another pathway that branches off from T0504 and curves northwest out of the city, soldiers said that road hems too close to enemy lines and indirect fire. Using it, they said without irony, is “Russian roulette.”

The 24th has pummeled Russian positions with aging Soviet howitzers and fought soldiers inside trenches at fisticuff range. The unit also trains at nearly every available moment. It helped support a massive operation involving thousands of soldiers Thursday and Friday, as machine-gun fire and howitzer shell explosions rolled across the coal-packed hills in service of a crucial objective: to pry the alligator’s jaw open.

The laser focus on Bakhmut has drawn some skepticism on both sides. Russia seems intent on taking it to claim a victory after a row of setbacks, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has turned the stubborn defense of the city into a rallying cry.

While Bakhmut does sit along key roads and railways in the larger Donbas region, controlling the city is unlikely to tip the war’s outcome. The benefit to Ukraine of killing waves of Wagner mercenaries and regular Russian soldiers may not outweigh the cost of suffering its own steep losses, given that Kyiv needs fighters and vehicles for an anticipated counteroffensive.

But orders are orders, and the 24th is here to fight until Russia retreats, or until everyone is dead.

A lieutenant with the radio call sign Hook held court with a platoon of soldiers wielding plastic airsoft guns to teach them the finer art of assaulting buildings in open terrain. Teams of two took cover in the rubble of a chemical factory before running into a garage. “Move! Move! Move!” Hook shouted, and the soldiers quickened their steps, suppressing phantom gunmen with volleys of plastic pellets.

Like most troops in Ukraine, he and other soldiers interviewed are being identified by their call signs because they were not authorized to disclose their full names to journalists.

Some of the troops in Hook’s command have little combat experience, he said, although the battle in and around Bakhmut has provided quick and brutal wisdom. A former sales manager before the invasion, Hook, 33, constantly analyzes the habits of Wagner forces and how they order their attacks and flanking maneuvers, then prepares his men to zig when they zag.

“I love to fool them,” he said, “and make a fool of them.”

But Hook and others in the battalion also commiserated over the frustrations of ammunition and weapon shortages.

Despite pronouncements by Western backers that they are streaming equipment into Ukraine, soldiers said the supply becomes a trickle when the gear is doled out — even at the epicenter of fighting closely watched by senior Ukrainian officials. This has made their task of holding the road and stifling Russian advances harder and riskier, they said.

A surveillance-drone operator named Aviator said the battle for the skies has come down to commercial equipment often sourced from China. He uses a DJI Mavic 3 drone to help search for enemy positions and patch in live video for artillery commanders so they can refine their strikes in real time.

The Russians use a device also made by DJI that can detect his drone’s flight path and launch location, using that information to fire at Ukrainian positions, he said.

Russian troops also wield a Chinese-made device that can sever the link between his controls and the drone, he said, forcing him to get much closer to enemy positions to maintain a strong signal. Aviator gets close enough, he said, to be in range of mortars and snipers, and to feel the organ-rumbling crash of howitzer strikes.

Aviator and other drone operators pipe their feeds to a dimly lit farmhouse turned command post in the Donetsk region. Inside, soldiers rest their Kalashnikovs against the wall, drink coffee from plastic cups and comb over videos on two big-screen TVs.

Chichen, 26, an artillery battery commander, his brow furrowed and pierced, constantly shifts between his phone, tablet and the aerial shots of Bakhmut’s apocalyptic landscape, looking to turn more Russian positions into smoldering rubble with his set of four D-30 howitzers.

The Bakhmut battle has taken a toll on the unit, he said. There have been about two dozen assault operations in the area, and only one ended without casualties. The darkest day, he said, involved an operation northeast of the city in the fall that left more than 150 soldiers dead, wounded or missing. “Even if you win, you still lose,” he said. “You go in knowing it will be hell.”

Compounding the difficulties, he said, was the condition of the artillery pieces, which are twice as old as Chichen, ground down from use and repaired at least 10 times already, making them less reliable with every volley.

Then there is the ammunition.

Artillery is a delicate skill, with cannoneers assessing topography, air pressure and even the weather at the top of the round’s parabolic arc before taking a shot. Another variable, Chichen said, is the shell’s fuze and explosives, which vary according to where they are made. The unit has had shells from Pakistan, Iran, the Czech Republic and elsewhere, soldiers said.

And there are not enough shells. At the start of the invasion, Chichen said, he would fire about 300 rounds a day. Now, it’s closer to 10 a day, depending on circumstances, with far more targets than the ammunition needed to hit them.

But Chichen and his men did not dwell much on limitations Friday, or become distracted by Zelensky’s honoring of 24th soldiers as heroes of Ukraine. His howitzers were trained on the southwest edge of Bakhmut, where the T0504 cuts into the city. Drones buzzed in the air, hunting for the enemy.

There were clear setbacks during the mission. The drone feed captured a strike on Ukrainian forces, and there were soon reports of wounded. “Oh, [no],” a soldier cursed, with the resignation of someone who had seen such a moment before.

Another explosion flashed on screen at a house where Russian forces took shelter. The soldiers watching erupted in cheers twice; during the initial hit, and again after a second feed on a delay showed a different angle, like a touchdown replay.

A soldier who watched it all, known as Happy for his joyful demeanor under fire, described the euphoria. “What better feeling is there,” he asked, “than killing a Russian?”

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.

*This story has not been edited by The Infallible staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.