Bakhmut hangs by thread; US soldier who fought there reflects on losses
A former U.S. military servicemember now fighting for Ukrainian forces recalls the sacrifices, the optimism, and the stress of his multiple deployments into the eastern Ukrainian city.
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Daniel Montano* was in Bakhmut just a week and a half ago.
The former U.S. military servicemember spent much of the last year fighting on behalf of the Ukrainian army, making repeated trips into the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
And so news about the reported fall of Bakhmut — or the city’s near-capture by Russian forces — has hit him hard.
He has known many Ukrainians, and a small handful of Americans, who had fought and died to keep that town from Russian control.
“A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into this city, the multiple times I've been there,” Montano told me in an interview Sunday afternoon in Kyiv. “I know it's not the end of the story; I know we will be back there, and we will reclaim it. I look forward to that.”
Russian and Ukrainian officials have made competing claims about the current state of fighting in the town, which has been the hottest flashpoint for fighting between the two countries. Russians claim to have taken the city; Ukrainians have said that fighting continues in the city, and that they have partially encircled it.
"It was just a matter of time. I just didn't expect it at this point,” Montano said, adding that he was feeling a rush of emotions: frustration, anxiety, and stress.
Sitting in the relatively-safer city of Kyiv, the former U.S. servicemember reflected that despite the danger of the war-torn city, he often felt more comfortable there.
“I felt more at peace — or less stressed out — when I was in Bakhmut, then I feel when I'm in Poland or Kyiv or any other place,” he said. “The psychological aspect of it is that you're not worried about anything other than survival and the guys around you -- so any of the worldly problems don't really bother you.”
He also shared heart-stopping video of his most recent trip into Bakhmut a week and a half ago:
More from Montano below, after the news headlines about the latest situation in Bakhmut.
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Hello to readers; Kyiv remains in Ukrainian hands.
But Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut appear to be hanging on by a thread.
Here’s the latest information on the situation:
Ukrainian forces have partially encircled Bakhmut, said Hanna Malyar, an official with Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense. ”[It] gives us the opportunity to destroy the enemy," she wrote on the Telegram messaging app. "The enemy has to defend himself in the part of the city he controls." She had said Saturday night that Ukrainian forces still had a foothold in “certain industrial and infrastructure facilities” in the city.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin claimed to have captured the entire city, after months of fighting led by Wagner Group mercenaries. Russian news agencies reported that Putin congratulated “Wagner assault detachments, as well as all servicemen of the Russian Armed Forces units, who provided them with the necessary support and flank protection, on the completion of the operation.” Russian information sources also posted videos of Wagner troops hoisting Russian and Wagner flags.
Zelenskyy denied later on Sunday that Bakhmut had fallen: “Bakhmut is not occupied by the Russian Federation as of today.”
At the G7 in Japan, U.S. President Joe Biden pointed out that Russian losses have been enormous, and that the city has hardly anything remaining:
“The Russians have suffered over 100,000 casualties in Bakhmut. It’s hard to make up… so whether or not there are troops in Bakhmut occupying [the city] – there are not many buildings left standing in Bakhmut. It’s a pretty devastated city.”
The city is not a particularly important strategic location. It is known for its salt mines and gypsum, according to Chris Miller, a former Peace Corps volunteer who had been stationed there. Miller now writes for the Financial Times.
But it had been the site of some of the heaviest fighting in the war. Zelenskyy compared Bakhmut to Hiroshima, saying that Japan's example of rebuilding the destroyed city has inspired him.
“We dream of rebuilding all our cities that are now in ruins and every village where not a single house is left after Russian strikes,” he said, according to Al-Jazeera.
When Montano was in Bakhmut, he was struck by the high spirits of the Ukrainian and foreign fighters who were stationed there.
“Everyone who was in Bakhmut wanted to be there; they wanted to fight and hold the city,” he said on Sunday. “It was an extremely fucked up situation. But everyone had a smile on their face. Everyone was where they wanted to be. Everyone went in with eyes wide open.”
There were eerie moments. He told the anecdote of coming across a civilian standing in an open field:
“There were still some civilians walking around. There was a guy who came up to us and asked for a cigarette. He was wearing a white armband. This guy just gave zero fucks, he was walking through the artillery fields. He just didn't care.”
Montano described a hellish landscape in Bakhmut: roads and fields littered by craters, abandoned vehicles and unexploded ordnance. "There isn't a building that wasn't on fire or didn't have craters in it,” he recalled.
He remembered that his departure from Bakhmut about a week and a half ago was the most dangerous point in his rotation. As an armored vehicle arrived to exfiltrate him, an artillery shell landed nearby. At another point, an anti-tank missile came streaking by, narrowly missing them as they drove out of the city.
“There were several times when I was sitting in the [Armored Personnel Carrier] that I thought, ‘this is it... that this is how I'm going to die,” he said. “We would go over a bump or a tree stump and I would think, that is it. We're all dead. So naturally, we were all laughing and joking.”
He grins at the memory.
"We made it,” he said. “Obviously.”
Today’s Dog of War has an unknown name.
He or she was in Bakhmut when Montano was fighting there: “It seemed pretty stressed out,” Montano said, adding that he fed the dog, but had to move on.
Stay safe out there.
*This name is a pseudonym for an American currently fighting with Ukrainian forces.
Seeing the complete destruction of yet another entire Ukrainian city never ceases to gut me. The spirit of the city survives, though, and will rise again. The evil enemy has already lost in all the things that are important. Slava Ukraine.
Wonderful reporting. Thanks for covering this so well -- on your own. Huge loss for NPR. Our gain.