North of Bakhmut, Ukraine’s defenses will be tested in another key battle

By Mike Collett-White

NEAR KREMINNA (Reuters) – From a small, nondescript house in a heavily bombed village in eastern Ukraine, Andrii ‘Tuman’, whose callsign means ‘fog’, commands his battalion around the clock to conduct intensifying Russian attacks in Chess.

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

Medical professionals reporting to Tuman reported heavy casualties in recent weeks, further evidence that the grueling frontline war that is sweeping through eastern and southern Ukraine comes at a heavy cost to both sides.

The rumble of distant shells is a constant backdrop as soldiers race through the village on armored personnel carriers while Tuman calls out coordinates for artillery strikes from his base – whose windows are blacked out.

“Since the beginning of February, they (the Russians) have conducted about 40 to 50 attempted attacks,” the 45-year-old told Reuters while relaying messages on his radio.

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

Tuman, a burly figure with a stringy beard, fears that the pincer movement Russian forces are attempting at Bakhmut to encircle Ukrainian troops defending it could be repeated on a larger scale in his front sector.

He said the Russians had recently changed the direction of their attack, apparently with the intention of taking the road to Lyman – a Ukrainian-controlled town west of Kreminna, forming the tip of a pincer.

At the end of the attempted encirclement appears to be Soledar, meaning an area much larger than Bakhmut would be vulnerable. This could allow Russia to accelerate west after months of being virtually deadlocked.

“This is the second main direction (after Bakhmut), which is very interesting for the enemy, because if they come to Lyman, then behind them there are Kramatorsk and Sloviansk,” he said.

“It’s going to be a ‘pincer’ threat, which is why they’re trying to fight so hard for that area – that’s no less important than Bakhmut.”


Some analysts said that while this may be Moscow’s intention, they doubted its ability to execute given the difficulty Russia had in capturing the virtually abandoned and badly damaged 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,” said Ukrainian military analyst Oleksandr Musiyenko.

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

President Vladimir Putin has described Moscow’s years-long invasion of Ukraine as a defensive setback against what he sees as a hostile West eager to expand into areas historically ruled by Russia.

The West and Kiev reject his justification for a war they say is a land grab that has killed tens of thousands of people, devastated cities and forced millions to flee.

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

Signs of the battles and subsequent artillery duels can be seen everywhere. Homes and businesses have been destroyed, burned-out military vehicles lie in the surrounding forests and cannons roar loudly as they fire on Russian positions to the northeast.

Despite all the carnage, the war has come to a virtual standstill.

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

Tuman said he believed the heavier attacks in February were likely the offensive by Russia that Western military experts anticipated back in the winter.

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

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

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

The battalion has gradually expanded its strength, adding drone teams and some heavy weaponry, including tanks, and while morale remains high and Tuman is a popular leader, commanders also speak of growing fatigue.

“To be honest, we’re 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 that a counteroffensive may be coming soon. The warmer weather has mudded the tracks in many places and brought heavy vehicles to a standstill.

“They (the Ukrainian authorities) are preparing many reserve battalions and will be involved in the counteroffensive,” Tuman said. “This is spring and the weather isn’t that favorable… so I believe it’s coming in April.”


Tuman’s adult life was marred by conflict. He said he took part in both wars between Russian troops and separatists after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

He retired from the Ukrainian armed forces in 2007 but rejoined in 2014 when Russian-backed separatists invaded eastern Ukraine. He was badly wounded in an explosion in 2020, but reported for duty after the full-scale invasion began.

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

His motivation comes from revenge against the Russians and the support of his battalion of several hundred soldiers. He declined to specify how many troops he commanded or allow the village where Reuters spent two days following him and his troops to be named.

In another room at his base, two men sat behind laptops and monitored live footage broadcast by drones surveying Russian positions. You use this to identify enemy threats and target them with artillery.

In the surrounding woods, on a dirt road towards the front lines some 8 km (5 miles) away, a medical evacuation team of two waited for a soldier wounded in combat to be brought to them by his comrades.

Mykhailo Anest, a 35-year-old medic, said the most intense fighting was in February, when up to 20 soldiers from the battalion were wounded in a single day.

“There is a lot of artillery and mortar fire,” he said.

Reuters on Monday saw five wounded soldiers brought from the front, two of them superficially. Anest stabilized a soldier with shrapnel wounds to his right leg in an ambulance before taking him to a nearby clinic.

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

At the moment, artillery seems to be the key to defending positions and pinning down the enemy for both sides.

“My boys have been fighting for months,” he muses. “They die and they don’t see a single Russian because they were all hit by artillery.”

(Reporting by Mike Collett-White; additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Kiev; editing by Angus MacSwan)


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