The battle around the city of Bakhmut is equally heated. Russian positions are within 200 meters of Ukrainian military units that have joined CNN. The unit is locked in a fierce artillery duel, sheltering in basements and using commercially procured drones as their best line of defense and intelligence.
Through broken windows, through trash-strewn interior rooms, Ukrainian soldiers look out over neighboring fields, seeing numerous blackened craters from the impact of artillery fire.
“They can see us here,” said a Ukrainian soldier, pointing into the distance.
This is a new type of fighter on the front line. Moscow’s manpower has been depleted by as many as 80,000 deaths, according to US officials, prompting Moscow to turn to the country’s vast private sector of mercenaries, the Wagner group.
Here at Bakhmut is where that system is put into ruthless action. The city has been the focus of Russian military attention for the past week, even as they abandon positions around Kharkiv and struggle to hold ground elsewhere. According to multiple Russian media reports, Wagner mercenaries have been deployed in that fight and are gaining ground around the eastern edge of the city.
Mercenary attacks are often devastating: Ukrainians tell CNN that Wagner’s soldiers attack them with small arms, prompting the Ukrainians to fire back to defend their positions. The firing then removes where the Ukrainians are, allowing the Russian artillery to aim with greater precision.
Attacks are regular and firing is almost constant.
“We see an enemy mortar unit. They are preparing to fire at us,” a drone operator said, looking at his monitor.
During CNN’s time with the unit on Tuesday, shells came intermittently close at one point, shaking the walls of the basement shelter. Here, a Ukrainian officer, known by his call sign “Price,” told CNN about the last Russian he took prisoner.
“We’re fighting a little bit with those musicians,” he said, referring to the Wagner group named after the composer.
“We captured one Wagner. He was a convict from Russia — I don’t remember exactly where from. He was either shot or surrendered. They work professionally as regular infantry units,” he said.
“The real problem is the artillery, it’s really accurate,” he added.
As he spoke, another shell hit near the shelter.
Bakhmut’s city center is now riddled with large craters from Russian shelling, main roads are torn up and stadium seating is split in two.
Analysts believe the city could provide Moscow with a strategic position in the Donbass from which to push north toward Sloviansk and Kramatorsk — and deliver a much-needed tactical victory at a time of mounting losses.
In another front-line series of trenches buried in the forest, Martin, another Ukrainian officer, agreed.
“[The Russians] retreated elsewhere and they need a victory, something significant, so they throw troops here,” he said.
“Sure, not today in our unit, but we’ve had casualties. But you can’t avoid dead or wounded, sometimes seriously wounded.”
This loss is highly personal. “I lost my best friend, five days after we got here. His nickname was Dancer,” he said. Like many call signs or nicknames, Martin has no idea why his friend got it.
Around the city, local life has been disrupted by heavy bursts of gunfire. A local, Andrei has sad and dark eyes that speak of explosions, lack of electricity, water and peace.
Still, he said of his street, “It’s not too bad, it’s just that every other house is destroyed.”
Helping many to survive is Natalia, selling potatoes — half a ton of them in one morning alone. “Who knows where the gunfire is coming or going,” she said, laughing nervously as another loud explosion struck.
“Don’t be afraid,” she added.
On Wednesday, the streets of Bakhmut appeared empty and shelling intensified on the eastern edge of the city, with Ukrainian guns apparently targeting Russian positions.
An apartment block, which had already been hit once, was still smoking after another rocket tore through all four floors. Soldiers milled anxiously in the street outside, surveying the damage. Military vehicles are roaring on the roads.
Walking home with food in a trolley with slow, loud and screeching wheels, was pensioner Maria, her eyes covered by large sunglasses.
“God is not afraid of you. And you cannot be afraid in your own land,” Maria said. The screeching sound of her rusty wheels was followed by more explosions.