North of Bakhmut, another key battle tests Ukrainian defenses

  • The front line north of Bakhmut is also seeing fierce fighting
  • The small gains of the Russians around the Kreminna come at a high cost
  • Ukrainian battalion says attacks have intensified
  • The commander defending the front sees a risk of encirclement
  • He expects a Ukrainian counter-offensive in April

NEAR KREMINNA, March 15 (Reuters) – From a nondescript little house in a badly bombed village in eastern Ukraine, Andrii “Tuman”, whose call sign means “fog”, orders his battalion Around the clock to hold intensifying Russian attacks at bay.

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

Doctors reporting to Tuman have described heavy casualties in recent weeks, further evidence that the bitter war along the front that runs through eastern and southern Ukraine is costing both sides dearly.

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

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

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

Tuman, a stocky figure with a wispy beard, fears that the pincer movement attempted by Russian forces in Bakhmut to encircle the Ukrainian troops defending it could be repeated, on a larger scale, in his sector of the front.

He said the Russians had recently changed their direction of attack, apparently with the intention of taking the road to Lyman – a Ukrainian-held town west of Kreminna, thus forming the top 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 stalled for months.

“It’s the second main direction (after Bakhmut) which is very interesting for the enemy, because if it comes to Lyman then beyond it is Kramatorsk and Sloviansk,” he said.

“It will pose a ‘pincher’ threat, which is why they are trying to fight so hard for this area – it is no less important than Bakhmut.”


Some analysts have said that while this may be Moscow’s intention, they doubt its ability to pull it off given the difficulty Russia has had in conquering the virtually abandoned and badly ruined city of Bakhmut.

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

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

President Vladimir Putin has framed Moscow’s year-long invasion of Ukraine as a defensive retreat against what he sees as a hostile West determined to expand into territories historically ruled by Russia.

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

Tuman’s 110th Battalion is active in territory seized by the Russians after Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year and retaken by Ukrainian forces in a counter-offensive in the last fall.

The signs of the fighting and the artillery duels that followed are everywhere. Homes and shops have been destroyed, burned military vehicles litter the surrounding woods, and cannons explode loudly as they fire at Russian positions to the northeast.

Despite all the carnage, the war has all but stopped.

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

Tuman said he believed heavier attacks in February were likely to be Russia’s offensive, which Western military experts were expecting as early as winter.

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

“They’re pushing hard. They’re throwing mortar bombs at us,” the 50-year-old told Reuters on Tuesday, describing the Russians advancing in fireteams with another wave behind sent to replace them if they’re killed.

“At night they always attack on foot and we sit around, looking through our thermal goggles and shooting at them.”

The battalion has gradually expanded its numbers, adding drone teams and heavy weapons, 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 seize the initiative, Tuman believes a counter-offensive could soon take place. Warmer weather reduced dirt tracks in many places, bogging down heavy vehicles.

“They (Ukrainian authorities) are preparing a lot of reserve battalions and they will be involved in the counter-offensive,” Tuman said. “It’s spring and the weather isn’t so good…so I think April is coming.”


Tuman’s adult life has been clouded by conflict. He said he took part in two 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 joined them in 2014 when Russian-backed separatists moved into eastern Ukraine. He was seriously injured in an explosion in 2020, but signed up to serve after the full-scale invasion began.

Tuman, who is Muslim, lost one of his three wives in hostilities near the capital kyiv near the start of the invasion. His only son, who was 21, also died fighting in the northern city of Sumy.

His motivation comes from getting revenge on the Russians and supporting his battalion of several hundred soldiers. He declined to specify how many troops he commanded or allow the name of the village where Reuters spent two days tracking him and his troops.

In another room at his base, two men sat behind laptop computers and monitored live footage sent by drones overlooking Russian positions. They use it to identify enemy threats and target them with artillery.

In the surrounding woods, on a dirt road to the front line about 8 km (5 miles) away, a two-man medevac team waits for a combat-wounded soldier to be brought to them by his comrades.

Mykhailo Anest, a 35-year-old doctor, said the heaviest fighting took place in February, when as many as 20 soldiers from the battalion were injured 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 injured by shrapnel in the right leg in an ambulance before taking him to a nearby clinic.

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

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

“My guys have been fighting for months,” he explained. “They’re 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; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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