KOSTYANTYNIVKA, Ukraine – The battle of Bakhmut isn’t over.
From the edges of Kostyantynivka, about 12 miles west of Bakhmut, which Russia captured a week ago, soldiers from Ukraine’s 24th Separate Assault Battalion pounded enemy trenches on the city’s southern flank with artillery fired from an old Soviet D30 howitzer on Saturday.
It was not so different than what they have been doing for weeks. But soldiers here cited one big change.
“The Wagner guys have left and the (regular Russians) have come in,” said a 26-year-old commander who asked to be identified by his call sign, Chichen. He used an anti-Russian ethnic slur to refer to the troops who appear to be replacing the mercenaries, including convicts recruited directly from prisons, who led Russia’s monthslong onslaught.
If confirmed, the rotation of forces would mark a major shift, making units under the Russian military’s regular command responsible for holding the city – and allowing Wagner leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin to pull away after claiming to have achieved the only big territorial gain for the Kremlin since last summer.
Moving regular Russian units to defend Bakhmut could create vulnerabilities at other locations along the front, which stretches hundreds of miles – weaknesses that Ukraine might try to exploit as it seeks to snatch back occupied territory in a counteroffensive that could begin at any moment.
After declaring Bakhmut fully under Russian control, Prighozin quickly announced his forces would leave beginning on Thursday, but his motivations and true plans have been difficult to discern.
Soldiers with the 24th Separate Assault Battalion said they had seen that Wagner fighters had withdrawn and were replaced by regular Russian troops in the areas they were targeting, but emphasized that they could not know for sure if this was a permanent shift, or happening elsewhere.
“Knowing that Wagner is not a fair player, I won’t believe them until we see what the captured (Russian) soldiers are saying,” said a 26-year-old drone operator who asked to be referred to by his nickname, Chuck, for security reasons.
Chuck said he was hopeful that Wagner forces, who adopted unorthodox strategies that they found hard to deal with, would leave. “Fighting with regular Russian forces is not as hard as fighting with Wagner,” he said.
Chichen said it was easier to target regular Russian troops.
“It’s interesting because the Wagner guys were sitting back in their little bunkers not coming out,” he said. “Whereas the Russians, they’re young, they’re fresh, they’re new, and they basically just walk out. Then we give them hell.”
Ukrainian officials have insisted that they still have a small foothold within the Bakhmut city limits and that they are making gains on the flanks of the city, which they said was part of a plan for a “semi-encirclement.”
Theoretically, that plan would allow them to eventually retake the city, in part by forcing the occupying Russians to withstand artillery fire from higher ground. But even some Ukrainian soldiers are not convinced the plan is real.
The effective loss of Bakhmut made little practical difference for this artillery unit, which has used a small former farmhouse to direct its strikes on Russian-occupied territory for months.
But the soldiers in the artillery unit admitted that losing Bakhmut was an emotional blow.
“We’ve been in Bakhmut for almost a year. We know every tree, every field. To see that we’ve lost it now, that plays on your morale,” Chichen said.
The soldiers said they remained perplexed by Wagner’s moves, noting that Prighozin had threatened to withdraw from the Bakhmut in the past. Chichen said the mercenaries’ unusual tactics included remaining in hideouts until after a Ukrainian advance, so they could then attack from behind.
“Around them would be dead bodies, weapons. It looked like the position was abandoned. But then when you come closer, they come out of the hole and shoot you in the back,” said Chichen, who compared the tactic to those used by guerrilla communist forces in the Vietnam War.
The strategy resulted in heavy losses for Wagner, which has seen at least 10,000 killed in action in Bakhmut, according to recent U.S. estimates.
But it allowed the Russian side to make slow advances, steadily pushing Ukraine to the southwestern edge of the city.
The 24th Separate Assault Battalion was first formed as a volunteer force during the fighting with Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and is now part of the 53 Mechanized Brigade. It recently completed a 10-day assault on Russian-held positions around Bakhmut that was exhausting even measured against the normal fighting here, which is typically relentless.
Chichen said his units were operating 24 hours a day, sometimes firing 100 shells in that period – a huge sum for this stage of the war when both sides have reported acute shortages of ammunition.
Chichen said he missed the fourth birthday of his son, whom he has not seen in six months, for the fight. But infantry soldiers said they were able to make significant gains.
In an old warehouse on the outskirts of Chasiv Yar, a town west of Bakhmut used by Ukrainian troops as a logistics hub, a 29-year-old company commander with the code sign Mozart pulled up a map on his phone to confirm how much ground his troops had gained – 1.5 kilometers, or nearly one mile, had been taken during the past week in the direction of Klishchiivka, a town on Bakhmut’s southern flank, he said.
“The boys are doing well, but it’s hard,” Mozart said.
The infantry units were now in a defensive mode, holding the positions they had taken. He said that his troops were no longer fighting Prighozin’s mercenaries. “In my direction, we don’t have Wagner guys. They’ve left,” he said.
The Ukrainians remain under heavy shelling. Dexter, a 23-year-old medic at the location in Chasiv Yar, which serves as a first aid point, said they were now seeing few injuries from gunfire but many from shelling.
“Everyone is having a hard time, but we’re not letting our heads hang,” Dexter said, speaking over the sound of frequent outgoing fire.
During a visit to a separate medical site in Kostyantynivka, three shells whizzed over the heads of a Washington Post reporting team in the space of 20 minutes. A medic, who wore no protection and regularly treated patients in a flimsy house with no hard cover, did not flinch.
“They’re trying to hit the critical infrastructure. A private house like this isn’t a target,” the medic, Oleg Ivanov, 40, said.
Nobody here knows what the next stage of fighting will look like.
Some Ukrainian officials and analysts have argued that Kyiv has used the battle for Bakhmut to deplete Russia’s force strength and energy ahead of a long-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive.
“I have a lot of hopes,” Mozart said of the looming counterattack. “I think it’s going to happen, but I can’t say any more about it.”
“I am not sad,” said Chuck, who said Ukrainians had been able to mount a “decent” response over recent weeks. “The battle of Bakhmut has slowed down our enemy. It’s a meat grinder of their people.”
But other analysts say a policy of “semi-encirclement,” as promoted by Ukrainian military officials, would require more resources to be sent to Bakhmut, when it is not a strategic priority. Right now, many artillery units like Chichen’s are struggling to find enough rounds.
“I don’t know what that thing is about encircling Bakhmut – that seems like an information sphere thing,” Chichen said.
He also emphasized that while many of the Russian reserves seemed inexperienced, which could allow Ukraine to make gains, there were other well-trained units arriving in Bakhmut. “The paratroopers are a very … high level,” he said.
Chichen said it was painful to see via drone footage that Russian forces were now occupying the same building in western Bakhmut that his artillery unit used as a base in the city from summer to early winter this year.
“The Russians are walking there as if it’s their home,” he said. “It’s as if you’re losing your own home. It’s really not pleasant.”
But the 24th Separate Assault Battalion also took a bit of Bakhmut with them too – a small black-and-white cat some of the soldiers have named after the city. Two weeks ago, as the city was falling, the cat gave the artillery team something to celebrate: Bakhmutka had birthed two kittens.