Bakhmut, Eastern Ukraine — The city of Bakhmut was home to about 70,000 people before it was on the front lines of Russian President Vladimir. Nearly 12 months of war have left Bakhmut barely recognizable.
Once known for its sparkling wine, the small town has been reduced to a hollowed-out shell of its former self. But Bakhmut and the Ukrainian forces defending it have persevered. “Bakhmut hold on” has even become a rallying cry for the nation fighting back against the Russian invaders. But it’s just manageable.
Even a quick trip to see the main square must be undertaken with one eye on the clock and the other keeping a watchful eye on the sky. The barrage of artillery fire is constant. The sound of incoming and outgoing shells fills the air, punctuated by bursts of small arms fire.
The town is absolutely decimated and all but deserted, though CBS News did spot a few civilians amazingly still trying to make a living amidst the rubble and ruin.
Seva Kozhemyako, founder and commander of the Khartia Battalion of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and his men are among the forces fighting to prevent Russia from seizing the small remnant of Bakhmut.
It has been one of the most fiercely contested and bloody battles of the war, and as the roar of artillery continued, Kozhemyako quickly led CBS News underground to one of the bunkers from which much of it has been commanded.
While trench warfare along a front line stretching hundreds of miles from north to south looks like something from the battlefields of Europe 100 years ago, Ukraine’s struggle to hold Bakhmut is being waged from high-tech underground command centers.
Inside Kozhemyako’s bunker, a small army of volunteer tech warriors – many of them gamers and IT nerds in their pre-war lives – carefully watched screens streaming video directly from the front lines.
A fleet of low-cost drones revealed the landscape in astonishing detail, from slain Russian soldiers to fields pockmarked by shells and shattered homes of civilians engaged in battle.
A drone recently spotted Russian troops creeping into a backyard to try to escape a Ukrainian grenade. Often the drones capture footage of seemingly helpless Russian troops huddled in trenches before a shell falls on them. Such clips have spread far and wide on social media in recent months – valuable propaganda for Ukraine and its supporters.
The videos paint a grim picture: men dying in World War I-style trenches as they battle the electronic warfare of the 21st century.
“They watch the videos, as soon as they see the enemy there, or the tanks, they just start firing,” Kozhemyako said of the engineering team’s coordination with troops on the frontline.
“We observe all enemy movements using drones,” said Oleksander Pyvenko, commander of the 3rd National Brigade of the Ukrainian National Guard.
Pyvenko said the real-time information is mainly used “to support artillery – we see the enemy’s advance and destroy them.”
The biggest challenge is detecting Russian incursions before it’s too late.
“It could be at night, but it could also be during the day,” Pyvenko said, but detecting enemy movements and alerting ground forces to them saves Ukrainian lives.
Gains along the frontline just east of Bakhmut, where Russian troops are dug in, have been counted in inches. Russia has thrown wave after wave of soldiers and mercenaries into the fight. Many of them had recently been captured, lured into the private army of the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group. If they survive,.
Ukrainian troops told CBS News that the Russian men are being treated like meat.
Anton Zadorozhyni, combat commander of the Ukrainian National Guard’s 3rd Operative Battalion, said there was no option for Russian troops to retreat.
“They are forced to go over the bodies of their fallen soldiers. One group is destroyed, new ones come… again and again,” he said. At night they collect the bodies.’
The Ukrainian forces holding the front line, using the intelligence coming from engineering bunkers, sleep, eat and fight in shifts around the clock.
They know that while Russian troops have been killed in staggering numbers trying to take the small town, more will come and more die on both sides.
But for now, Bakhmut holds out from the bunker to the blood-soaked battlefields just a few blocks away.
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