North of Bakhmut, another major battle tests Ukraine’s defenses

  • There is also heavy fighting in the front line north of Bakhmut
  • Small profits from Russians around Kreminna come at a high cost
  • The Ukrainian battalion says the attacks have intensified
  • Commander defending the front sees danger of encirclement
  • He expects a Ukrainian counter-offensive in April

NEAR KREMINNA, March 15 (Reuters) – From a small, nondescript house in a heavily bombed village in eastern Ukraine, Andrii “Tuman”, using his call sign “fog”, orders his battalion around the clock to maintain intensification of Russian remote attacks.

What Ukrainian forces have long described in the city of Bakhmut is also playing out to the north in the Luhansk region — more Russian troops, weapons and aggressive tactics that Moscow hopes will deliver a much-needed breakthrough.

Medics reporting to Tuman described heavy casualties in recent weeks, further evidence that the heavy warfare along the front that cuts across eastern and southern Ukraine comes at a high cost to both sides.

The rumble of distant shelling is a constant background as soldiers on armored personnel carriers speed through the village, while Tuman at his base – the windows are blacked out – calls out coordinates for artillery strikes.

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“Since the beginning of February, they (the Russians) have carried out about 40 to 50 attacks,” the 45-year-old told Reuters between relaying messages on his radio.

“We repelled them all,” added the commander, who identifies himself as Ichkerian, using the historical name for Russia’s southern Chechnya region, where he fought in two wars. He rejects Moscow’s control of the territory.

Tuman, a stocky figure with a wispy beard, fears the pincer movement Russian troops are attempting in Bakhmut to encircle the Ukrainian troops defending it could be replicated more widely in his sector of the front.

He said the Russians had recently changed direction, apparently intending to take the road to Lyman – a city under Ukrainian control that lies west of Kreminna, forming the tip of a pincer.

At the bottom of the encirclement attempt appears to be Soledar, meaning an area much larger than Bakhmut would be vulnerable. This could allow Russia to accelerate westward after being virtually stuck for months.

“This is the second main direction (after Bakhmut) that is very interesting for the enemy, because when they come to Lyman, then there are Kramatorsk and Sloviansk,” he said.

“It will be a ‘pincer’ threat and that’s why they are trying so hard for this area – this is no less important than Bakhmut.”


Some analysts said that while this may be Moscow’s intention, they doubted its ability to carry it out given the difficulty Russia has had in capturing the virtually abandoned and heavily destroyed city of Bakhmut.

“There is indeed an increase in activity and they (the Russians) are trying to advance towards Lyman – they managed to advance 4 km in February,” said Ukrainian military analyst Oleksandr Musiyenko.

“The enemy would need a lot of troops to take this line (Sloviansk-Kramatorsk-Kostiantynivka) and so I think it is unlikely given the losses already suffered by the Russian forces,” he added.

President Vladimir Putin has viewed Moscow’s year-long invasion of Ukraine as a defensive backlash against what he sees as a hostile West determined to expand into areas traditionally ruled by Russia.

The West and Kiev reject his justification for a war they say is a land grab that has killed tens of thousands, destroyed towns and cities and forced millions to flee.

Tuman’s 110th Battalion has been operating in the territory taken by the Russians after Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year and was recaptured by Ukrainian forces in a counter-offensive last fall.

Signs of the fighting and subsequent artillery duels are everywhere. Homes and shops have been destroyed, burnt-out military vehicles litter the surrounding forests and guns boom loudly as they fire on Russian positions to the northeast.

For all the carnage, the war has virtually come to a standstill.

Russia has made only small gains around Bakhmut, which it has been trying to capture for eight months, and further north.

Tuman said he believed heavier attacks in February likely shaped the Russian offensive that Western military experts had already anticipated over the winter.

Oleksandr, the commander of a unit in the Tuman battalion fighting the Russians in the frontline trenches, also saw an escalation last month.

“They are pushing hard. They are throwing mortar bombs at us,” the 50-year-old told Reuters on Tuesday, describing the Russians advancing in fire teams with a new wave sent behind to replace them if they are killed.

“At night they always attack on foot and we sit, look through our thermal goggles and shoot them.”

The battalion has gradually expanded its strength, adding drone teams and some heavy weaponry, including tanks, and while morale remains high and Tuman is a popular leader, commanders also speak of increasing fatigue.

“To tell you the truth, we are really exhausted,” said Serhii Pavlovych, 43, deputy commander in charge of psychological support. “That’s the only serious problem so far. The motivation is very high.”

As for Ukraine’s attempt to take the initiative, Tuman thinks a counter-offensive could be imminent soon. The warmer weather has left the roads muddy in many places, causing heavy vehicles to become stuck.

“They (Ukrainian authorities) are preparing many reserve battalions and they will be involved in the counter-offensive,” Tuman said. “This is spring and the weather is not so favorable…so I believe it will be in April.”


Tuman’s adult life is overshadowed by conflict. He said he took part in both wars in the 1990s between Russian troops and separatists after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

He retired from the Ukrainian armed forces in 2007, but rejoined the army in 2014 when Russian-backed separatists moved into eastern Ukraine. He was badly injured in an explosion in 2020, but volunteered to serve after the full-scale invasion began.

Tuman, who is Muslim, lost one of his three wives near the beginning of the invasion during the hostilities near the capital Kiev. His only son, who was 21, also died fighting in the northern city of Sumy around that time.

His motivation stems from exacting revenge on the Russians and supporting his battalion of several hundred soldiers. He declined to specify how many troops he commanded or that the name of the village where Reuters spent two days following him and his troops was mentioned.

In another room of his base, two men sat behind laptops and monitored live images sent from drones surveying Russian positions. They use this to identify enemy threats and attack them with artillery.

In the surrounding woods, on a dirt road to the front line some 8 km (5 mi) away, a two-man medical evacuation team waited for a wounded soldier to be taken to them by his comrades.

Mykhailo Anest, a 35-year-old medic, said the most intense fighting was in February, when as many as 20 soldiers from the battalion were wounded in a single day.

“There is a lot of artillery and mortar fire,” he said.

Reuters saw five wounded soldiers brought in from the front on Monday, two of them superficially. Anest stabilized a soldier with shrapnel wound to his right leg in an ambulance van before taking him to a nearby clinic.

Tuman said he needed more artillery firepower, including ammunition, and multiple rocket launchers to keep the pressure on the Russians.

For now, artillery seems to be key to defending positions and pinning down the enemy for both sides.

“My boys have been fighting for months,” he thought. “They are dying and they don’t see a single Russian, because they’ve all been hit by artillery.”

Reporting by Mike Collett-White; additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Kyiv; Edited by Angus MacSwan

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Principles of Trust.

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