For the last eight months, a huge amount of Russian and Ukrainian military power has been concentrated on a 16-square-mile patch of eastern Ukraine: the beseiged city of Bakhmut.
With Russian forces now holding the majority of the city, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has faced questions over whether Ukraine can — or even should — try to hold on to the city.
Some soldiers have made plain the difficulty of the task, as Politico reported.
But Junior Lieutenant Olga Bigar, known by her callsign of “Witch,” whose mortar platoon fought in Bakhmut for several months, is determined not to give an inch.
“If you give Russia a fingertip, you encourage them to chop off the whole arm,” she told Insider. “Giving even the tiniest thing to Russia encourages the aggressor. They will come for more.”
Speaking to Insider in late April and early May, Bigar, who gained a large social media following for her platoon’s exploits in Bakhmut and beyond, described from a fighting perspective why Bakhmut remains so important, and what Ukraine needs in order to keep it.
‘They don’t know how to fight’ smartly
Ukraine has long argued that fighting for Bakhmut allows Ukraine to wear down Russia’s vastly larger force, with one NATO official saying in March that Russia was losing five fighters for every one Ukrainian killed in the city.
Bigar also said Ukraine is losing fewer fighters there.
“The losses of our army are significantly lower than those of the occupier,” she said, which she attributed to superior tactics.
“We do have wounded, but we have very few killed in action,” she added.
Junior Lieutenant mortar platoon commander Olga Bigar of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces.Oleg Palchyk
Bigar said that over the last year they’ve learned to work point-to-point, “to shoot only at command posts and strategic targets.”
Russia burns through ammunition because it can — a luxury Ukraine cannot afford, she said. “For every four shots the orcs take, we can answer one — so we count very well,” she added, using a common Ukrainian insult to describe Russian soldiers.
This has sharpened a distinction between the two forces, she said, with Russian artillery tactics basic and the army’s overall organization “feudal in nature.”
Because of this, she added, “the Russians absolutely do not know how to fight with a small amount of ammunition.”
One battle Bigar described to Insider exemplified the disparity — when her well-coordinated and strategically-placed mortar platoon of 18 soldiers held off a 70-strong wave of Wagner Group fighters blundering towards them during Russia’s drive to take the city over the New Year.
Bigar said a key reason to stay in Bakhmut is to deprive Russia of any symbolic victory.
Observers have long noted that Putin is desperate for a win to tout domestically, with Western onlookers vocal in their assessment that Bakhmut holds little strategic value.
“I think it is more of a symbolic value than it is strategic and operational value,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in early March, hinting that there would be no great shame in a tactical retreat for Ukraine.
But Bigar said that by staying there they are “destroying their moral and psychological condition.” In this way, she said, “we are preventing Russian mass media from being able to brag about their victories.”
That became apparent in the damp squib that was Putin’s much-reduced Victory Day parade earlier this month.
‘We count every shell’
Looking ahead, for Ukraine to keep a hold on Bakhmut it will need more than just grit and determination, said Bigar.
Ukraine cannot afford to waste equipment and ammunition, she said. To make a dent in Russia’s well-supplied land defense and push them back, Ukraine needs artillery ammunition, she added, and a lot of it.
This is made all the more complicated by the fact that Ukraine is fighting with two different ammunition standards: those belonging to its existing Soviet and post-Soviet weaponry, and those used in the weaponry provided by its Western allies.
Bigar points out that NATO artillery shells are 155mm, while Soviet Howitzers use 152mm, “and this situation applies to many samples of heavy and small weapons,” she said.
But with “even a few units” of precise, modern weapons Ukraine has “a tangible advantage” over Russian forces, she said.
To gain an edge, Ukraine also needs advanced radar technologies and electronic warfare systems, she added.
Nowadays Bakhmut is in ruins, its pre-war population of 70,000 reduced to roughly 4,000 as of March.
Still, for Bigar, the city must be held, despite the toll it is taking.
“This is the way to stop the aggression and to stabilize the situation on the frontline,” she said, adding: “We count every shell, every mine, and every human life.”
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