With the fierce battle for the city of Bakhmut looming behind them, a squad of Ukrainian soldiers tear across an open field, racing to escape falling Russian artillery.
But before they could get to safety, they said, they got a flat tire.
The three soldiers – known by the call signs Omar, Chip and Bandit – spent the day on Friday taking part in Ukrainian offensives near Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, blowing up Russian tanks and armored vehicles. . But after surviving another brutal day of war, they worry that they might be damaged by a flat tire.
Omar, 36, got out of the car and used a screwdriver to put a plug in the hole. Within moments, they left again.
The men, who told their story on Saturday outside the nearby town of Chasiv Yar, are among hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers who have been ordered into the offensive around Bakhmut in recent days. The fighting was always so hard, they said, that many Russians were willing to die rather than surrender even when surrounded.
But every step forward, they say, is better than a step back.
For nearly a year, Ukraine simply tried to hold on to Bakhmut as Russian forces pressed into the city from both sides while at the same time laying waste – blocked by a bloody block – to what was once a a vibrant coal mining city. of 80,000.
Over time, Bakhmut acquired a great importance: a symbol of Ukrainian resistance and the determination of Russian leaders to blast their way to a small victory in a little-known corner of eastern Ukraine.
Last week, for the first time, Ukrainian forces launched a series of coordinated attacks and in a few days won back territory north and south of the city that had been taken by Russian forces. months to get. Ukrainian soldiers hope that they have turned the tide of the war and can continue to advance.
“Everything will be better if we start driving out the Russians,” said Omar, who asked to be identified only by his call sign in accordance with military protocol.
But inside Bakhmut, soldiers fighting to hold the last few ruined buildings they control in the western corner of the devastated city said Saturday that it remains a place of incomprehensible violence.
“It’s too early to talk about the successes of the city itself,” said a member of a platoon rotating out of Bakhmut. He was one of 16 soldiers waiting for a military transport in Chasiv Yar after a month-long tour. “We need more Javelins,” he said, referring to the US-made missiles supplied to Ukraine. “Russian tanks give us nightmares.”
Chasiv Yar, about six miles west of Bakhmut, was itself besieged as both sides traded artillery volleys and rockets. This is now the next line of defense for Ukraine if the Russians take Bakhmut and continue to advance west.
“Our troops are gradually advancing in two directions in the suburbs of Bakhmut,” Hanna Mailar, a deputy defense minister of Ukraine, said in a statement late Saturday. He said that the active fighting made it possible to give accurate details about the state of the fighting but admitted that the Ukrainians “destroyed the enemy and have already taken a lot of prisoners.”
“The situation in the city itself is more complicated,” he said.
Since December alone, the United States estimates that more than 20,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in fighting in Ukraine, many around Bakhmut, a spokesman for the National Security Council, John Kirby, said this month. Another 80,000 were injured, he said.
The Ukrainians are now looking to capitalize on those losses by attacking the positions around the city that they lost in the winter and trying to encircle the Russian forces within the ruins of Bakhmut.
Russian forces control more than 90 percent of the city, according to Russian and Ukrainian officials, but the Ukrainians are preventing them from taking the last bit of ground and advancing on Chasiv Yar.
Under the cover of a ruined bus stop in Chasiv Yar, a platoon of soldiers spinning out of Bakhmut didn’t flinch as the outgoing artillery boomed and incoming rockets thundered nearby. They faced much worse.
The commander of the 24th Motorized Rifle Brigade, which goes by the call sign Prince, said on Saturday that after a short tactical pause, the Russian forces heavily attacked the city again.
“The fire of artillery, rockets and airstrikes will not stop for a minute,” he said. “Every meter in the city is now under shelling.”
The brigade released a photo of the wreckage taken by a drone on Saturday that they say captured the destruction of Bakhmut. The frameworks of the foundations of what were once houses and businesses were covered in a soupy fog that the brigade said was smoke from fires and shells. The authenticity of the photo cannot be independently verified, but it follows reports from people who were in the destroyed town.
Last week, sometimes twice a night, the Ukrainian soldiers said, the Russians used incendiary bullets to force them from their positions.
The Ukrainians claim the bombs are phosphorus munitions, which are banned under international law when used against civilians but not when used against military targets, and can burn at temperatures above 1,400 Fahrenheit.
The smell of fire and smoke hung heavy in Chasiv Yar on Saturday as shellfire shook the valley below. There are new impact craters on the streets around town.
There were very few civilians, mostly elderly, on the streets. They went about their business as a steady stream of armored vehicles and tanks rumbled past, on their way to battle.
“We are very sad for them,” said Marcello, one of the soldiers, about the few remaining civilians in Bakhmut. “There was a 92-year-old babushka who was injured, and we put her on a stretcher and helped her out.”
While they were waiting for their own boat to a safer place, they just learned that the Russians outside the city were reported to be suffering a series of defeats.
“At last,” said a soldier.