(Near Bakhmout) On the eastern front of Ukraine, Ukrainian tankmen say they are “ready” for the spring offensive announced by Kyiv, after having fought the Russians in Bakhmout where the long battle could soon come to an end.
Sheltered in a wood, crew chief Oleksandre and his three comrades assemble a six-meter-long handle surmounted by a large swab to clean the imposing gun of their T-72 tank.
They haven’t fired for several days, but they regularly maintain their armor in order to be “ always ready ” for the announced offensive, says Oleksandre.
For several months, Ukraine has claimed to want to make a decisive assault to reverse the course of the Russian invasion and liberate the nearly 20% of its occupied territory – including the Crimean peninsula.
“We have to move on, because it’s our only chance to get home sooner. It is only with our victory that we will be able to return faster. So we wait, we wait,” continues the crew chief, out of breath after the gun cleaning operation.
In the distance, the crash of artillery fire and explosions echoes in the rain-laden sky.
About 15 kilometers away is Bakhmout, the epicenter of the fighting in eastern Ukraine, where particularly deadly clashes have been raging since last summer.
In recent weeks, Russian fighters, those of the paramilitary group Wagner and those of the army’s special forces, have made strong progress in the center of the locality, after intense urban fighting.
The Ukrainians now only hold a small western part of the city and the Russian authorities claim to control around 90% of the city – which had 70,000 inhabitants before the conflict – today almost in ruins.
“From what I can see of the current situation, it seems that there is almost nothing left in Bakhmout that is controlled by us,” said Oleksandre, the commander of a squadron of T-72s supplied to the Ukraine by Poland a few months ago already.
Zaur, meanwhile, stayed five days in this city in mid-April, on an infantry support mission, although “ tanks are generally not designed for urban combat ”.
“It’s a big machine. It is difficult to turn around, to manoeuvre, to retreat,” said this other T-72 commander, adding that he carried out around fifty shots in total during his mission.
Comparing the types of terrain more or less favorable to the use of tanks, the tankers believe that the hilly region around Bakhmout is more complicated than the southern ones of Kherson and Zaporijjia, made up of large agricultural plains.
These last areas are regularly mentioned by analysts as a possible theater of the offensive expected for the spring of the Ukrainian forces.
Around Bakhmout, “it’s a very difficult landscape. There are valleys and ditches. And the distances to be covered are very short — 200, 300 meters. So it makes little sense, they (the Russians) can see us. And the visibility is rather bad in our tanks,” explains Oleksandre, the squadron commander.
To reconquer the lost territory, Ukraine claims to have formed assault brigades and stored ammunition while striving to spare its troops and exhaust those of its adversary on the front. It also received combat tanks and long-range artillery from its Western supporters.
But for Ivan, a 24-year-old mechanic, busy cleaning the machine gun of his T-72, “the counter-offensive will not change things as quickly as everyone wants. For a counter-offensive, you need large forces, a lot of equipment […] I don’t think that will be the case soon. And it won’t be that easy,” he said.
In the meantime, “ we maintain the machines, we maintain the weapons. We acquire new knowledge. We are always on alert”, adds the young man.
Oleksandre, 40, the deputy commander of the battalion to which the tankers interviewed belong, also insists on the importance of the preparation of the crews, each member of which must know each other well and have automatisms.
“Here (in a tank), you have to understand everything half-word. For tankers, a fraction of a second is decisive. Getting away from a bombardment or hitting the target. Because the target does not stay still either, it moves. It must be touched, it must be destroyed and the task must be accomplished,” he explains.