Ukrainian soldiers were waiting for just the right moment to attack. Then they received critical intelligence: Russian mercenaries on the other side of the front line outside Bakhmut were about to rotate out and be replaced by other soldiers.
It was time to go. “We all felt the adrenaline,” said an infantry soldier who identified himself by his call sign, Face, in accordance with military protocols.
Ukrainian soldiers were told to get their kits ready, making sure they had plenty of grenades and full clips of ammunition. “We considered the change of shifts to be the enemy’s biggest weakness,” said Col. Andriy Biletsky, the commander of the brigade.
It was the morning of May 6, the beginning of three days of fighting on the outskirts of Bakhmut that has shifted momentum in the fiercest battle of the war. Soldiers from Ukraine’s 3rd Separate Assault Brigade battled with the Russians across forest belts where the trees rose like scorched matchsticks. They stormed trenches littered with the dead. They followed armored personnel carriers across open fields as the two sides exchanged heavy gunfire.
In the maelstrom of explosions, every yard gained felt like a mile, soldiers said.
But when this three-day clash was over, Ukraine had reclaimed a patch of land about 1.8 miles wide and a mile and a half deep just south of the Ivanivske village, outside Bakhmut.
Though the territory captured was small, the Ukrainians have since built on their success, reclaiming more than 12 square miles to the north and south of the city, according to the military. Those gains represent a striking shift in a place where the Ukrainians had been on the back foot for months, and a potential blow to a Russian war effort that had made Bakhmut the primary strategic prize within its grasp.
But even as Ukrainian forces have fought to take back critical areas around Bakhmut, Russian forces have relentlessly worked for months to occupy the city’s center.
On Saturday, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner paramilitary group, said his mercenaries had seized the remaining ruined blocks of the city itself, blocks they did not already control, a claim the Ukrainians quickly disputed. Even if true, Ukraine’s gains north and south of the city suggest the long battle for Bakhmut would not be over.
Ukrainian and British officials said on Saturday that Moscow was racing to bring in more soldiers to reinforce its lines around the city. Such a redeployment could help Russia reverse recent Ukrainian gains, but it could also benefit Ukraine as it prepares its counteroffensive by weakening Russian forces elsewhere along the front.
This account of a three-day clash early this month on the outskirts of Bakhmut is based on an extended interview with Colonel Biletsky near the front, soldiers who took part in the assault, videos those soldiers recorded in real time with body cameras and more extensive videos the brigade released later.
Russian military bloggers have reported on the retreat in this sector, and military analysts have confirmed the location of the battlefield footage.
Colonel Biletsky said dozens of Russians were killed on the last day of the battle alone and more were taken prisoner. His brigade also lost soldiers over the course of three days, he said. Neither Ukraine nor Russia publicly releases precise casualty counts.
The 3rd Separate Assault Brigade, which was formally established in the fall, was dispatched to Bakhmut this winter to help secure the one remaining road into the city, after Russian forces came close to cutting it off.
It is led by Colonel Biletsky, a former ultranationalist politician and the founder of the Azov regiment, a group that was part of Ukraine’s national guard before the war and is now integrated into the country’s military forces, with little or no political bent.
The number of Ukrainian units engaged in fighting around Bakhmut is kept secret for operational security reasons, but the Ukrainian military said that dozens of clashes were now playing out every day with units from a constellation of brigades. The 3rd Separate Assault Brigade said on Thursday that its soldiers had advanced about a half mile further and would continue to try to advance on Friday.
No two battles in war are identical. They are shaped by the contours of the land, the strength of the opposing forces, the weapons available, the weather and a host of other factors. The fighting outside Ivanivske offers only a small window into the furious fighting in and around Bakhmut, where Russian forces continue to wage a scorched-earth campaign inside the city limits.
But the three-day battle provides a telling example of how Ukraine hopes to exploit the very public divisions among the three principal Russian forces fighting in Bakhmut: the Wagner private military company, loyal to Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, Chechen militias loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov and the regular army.
It is also a reminder that retaking land from a well-entrenched enemy is a brutal affair fought at close quarters. “You need to understand the cost of this advance,” Hanna Maliar, a deputy defense minister, said on Friday. “It is extremely difficult to carry out combat tasks there, because the enemy has concentrated a huge amount of his efforts.”
Colonel Biletsky dismissed notions that the Russians were poorly equipped as “more TikTok propaganda than reality.”
“The enemy is ready,” he said. “They are well personally equipped, armed, they have means of communication, good armored vehicles and a very good system of unmanned aerial vehicles.”
Ukrainian fighters control only a small corner inside the city limits of Bakhmut roughly the size of Central Park, according to Russian and Ukrainian soldiers and officials. They are being attacked in frontal assaults and bombarded with artillery from Russian positions on the high hills flanking the ruins.
The only way to relieve the pressure, Ukrainian officials said, was to drive the Russians from the positions around the city.
“The No. 1 task was to push back the enemy on the flanks of Bakhmut,” Colonel Biletsky said. “We used three types of maneuvers: infiltration, frontal attack and turning movement.”
When Ukrainian commanders noticed the Russians rotating in new units, replacing Wagner mercenary fighters with soldiers from Russia’s 72nd Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade, they decided to try to take the other side by surprise.
“We attack as quickly as possible, immediately trying to advance behind the enemy’s front line,” said Colonel Biletsky.
Before dawn on May 6, unit commanders assembled and were given their orders: Cross a distance of about 500 meters from the Russian front line southwest of the village of Ivanivske to the Russians’ second line of defense. And do it quietly.
This would allow them to avoid the enemy’s principle defensive positions and force the Russians to move their own positions to meet the threat.
To maintain the element of surprise, the Ukrainians decided not to use artillery. Infantry soldiers following armored vehicles moved swiftly to cover the scorched ground, the threat of detection by Russian drones an ever-present risk.
Once Ukrainian soldiers got to the second trench line, the Russians realized what was happening and the fighting was intense and chaotic. Soldiers described having to move quickly to storm trenches, turning corners even as they were unsure what they would find — and often coming face-to-face with the opposing side. They also had to clear out the Russian positions now at their back.
But by the end of the first day, they held the flank.
Then they waited.
Colonel Biletsky said they wanted to make the Russians believe that the small advance on the flank was the goal of the operation, so they did not try to advance on the second day. Instead, the soldiers carried out reconnaissance and artillery attacks aimed at enemy reserves trying to approach.
In the quiet hours, they talked, ate and made sinister jokes.
“Who were you before the war?” one soldier asks another in a video shared by the brigade. “A fireman,” the other soldier replies. “I used to save people, but now I kill them.”
The fighting resumed on the third morning at 5 a.m.
The New York Times viewed video footage that the Ukrainian military said was taken by soldiers in battle that day and confirmed its location. It shows armored vehicles bursting through the first line of defense under a hail of gunfire. Infantry soldiers jump out, firing as they exit the vehicle.
“Go around the left side, you’re the first,” a soldier orders in one video. “Go!”
At this point, soldiers said, the only way to clear out the Russians was to go trench by bloody trench, unsure whether the Russians had fled, were hiding or were still fighting.
“Approaching! Move in!” one soldier shouts as they storm a Russian dugout. Something explodes near the Ukrainians. “Go! Go back!” another soldier yells.
The Ukrainians then approach the Russian dugout again and toss in a grenade, and it goes quiet, according to video footage.
After clearing the first line — a defensive network spread out over an area about two miles across — they had to take out the second line, where even more Russians were positioned, according to soldiers and the commander.
On and on it went like that for hours, they said. Videos taken by Ukrainian soldiers appear to show trenches littered with dead Russian soldiers.
By the end of the third day, they had the surviving Russians surrounded.
“Our guys were yelling at them to surrender,” said the soldier called Face. Some laid down their weapons. Others fled. Still others fought on and were killed.
Face was towing a damaged Ukrainian armored vehicle from the battlefield, smiling as he stopped for coffee a day after the clash ended.
He was most happy that the Ukrainians came away with far fewer soldiers killed.
“According to military doctrine, the army who counterattacks has more casualties,” he said. “But that’s not true. We have the opposite. We have losses, but they have many times more losses.”
Nataliia Novosolova and Anastasia Kuznietsova contributed research.