A Soul in Bakhmut
Victory in Ukraine is no longer just a word; it is a conviction, a determination to bring it into existence. Even the most disheartened fighters know that it’s either victory or death. But the cost of achieving victory goes beyond any measurable figure or metric. Numbers quickly lose their meaning in war. Personal stories become the only measure that doesn’t fade.
Valerii Fedorchuk, a Ukrainian soldier who exudes confidence mixed with sadness, gestures towards the valley below us, where a line of ruined buildings scars the horizon. The sound of heavy artillery and plumes of smoke fill the air. Wherever the shells land, it’s not where we stand, in the hills surrounding the Bakhmut front in eastern Ukraine. It’s a bright August afternoon, and he has brought me here to witness the battlefield. Ukraine’s counteroffensive against entrenched Russian defenses is underway and progressing, albeit slower than expected. Every meter of land matters in a war that many believed would be over in seventy-two hours last February, with Russia in control of Ukraine.
Valerii Fedorchuk, a fifty-year-old barrel-chested Ukrainian soldier with a salt-and-pepper beard, is known by his call sign, “Soul.” He strikes me as the kind of father who would be present at his child’s soccer games, encouraging them while also making sure the referee doesn’t miss any fouls. But he is not in peacetime. As an artilleryman with the 3rd Assault Brigade, he is determined to do what needs to be done in the weeks, months, or even years to come. “Victory will be achieved when we kick the enemy out of Ukraine and make them realize we don’t need them, that they should stay where they belong,” he says.
“Bakhmut used to be a beautiful city,” he continues. “Now it is like a cancer, in how it looks and feels. And like any cancer, we must eradicate it to save the body. It is the result of the Russian world infiltrating it. Anything touched by the Russian world turns into that.”
The sound of outgoing rockets fired closer to our position interrupts our conversation. The violence of war clashes with the serene countryside surrounding us – green trees, yellow hills, and peaceful blue streams that belong in a painting. This is life in the Donbas in 2023.
Fedorchuk never imagined he would become a soldier. Previously, he was a professional weightlifter, coaching college athletes and running a human rights nonprofit. However, when Russia invaded Ukraine last year, he and his family decided to leave their home in Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv, for the relative safety of western Ukraine. Soon after, Irpin faced heavy shelling and temporary Russian occupation, resulting in the deaths of up to 300 of their neighbors and friends.
During the initial months of the war, Fedorchuk transported supplies and aid from the Polish border to frontline villages. As Western attention waned, so did the amount of aid, leaving him wondering what more he could do. That’s when he decided to enlist, partly to represent his family. He has two sons and a younger brother with serious health issues. Having a family member in uniform carries great significance in Ukrainian society.
We walk through some reserve trenches, dug in case of another Russian advance. Fedorchuk assures me they won’t need to use them, but their existence suggests that someone, somewhere, has considered otherwise. The trenches are deep, narrow, and tight, designed to limit the impact zone of munitions dropped from drones.
“The Russians fight pretty well now,” Fedorchuk remarks, explaining that the enemy’s tactics have evolved since the failed attempt to seize Kyiv last spring. Ukrainian fighters particularly fear Russian suicide drones like the Lancet and the Chinese-made Mavic 3 quadcopter. “But as we push them back, we hear their excuses over the radio. They say it must be Americans or Poles, all of NATO. It’s too embarrassing for them to admit that it is only us,” he says with a deadpan voice.
Fedorchuk’s unit, the 3rd Assault Brigade, has gained recognition for their fights in Bakhmut. They held the city through the winter and into the spring under terrible conditions reminiscent of World War I. Formed in January, the brigade emerged from veterans of the Azov Regiment, which has been associated with far-right politics in the West. However, in Ukraine, many primarily view the regiment for its military prowess. They endured months in underground steelworks during the Siege of Mariupol in 2022, an act of bravery that profoundly impacted the perception of the regiment among Ukrainians. A battle for memory is ongoing, and Fedorchuk is aware of it.
“I joined the 3rd Assault Brigade because they were willing to fight,” he says plainly. “They had real, relevant military experience.” And what about the allegations of Azov being Nazis? “I appreciate our allies,” he says, placing his hand on my shoulder. “They have done a lot for us. But if it weren’t for Americans, the idea of ‘Ukrainian Nazis’ wouldn’t even exist.”
We emerge from a trench and claim a grassy hill nearby. Artillery fire can be heard from one direction, while rockets are launched from another. Fedorchuk mentions that most of his unit consists of people who have suffered from the Russian world, originating from eastern Ukraine. These are the kind of men Putin claims want to be Russian citizens. Fedorchuk himself speaks both Ukrainian and Russian but admits he is more comfortable with the latter.
“I am old, but I try hard to change,” he says with a laugh when my interpreter compliments his Ukrainian language skills. “My sons speak perfect Ukrainian. This is important to me.”
His eldest son, studying international politics in Europe, keeps asking to join his father in the fight. But Fedorchuk keeps telling him no.
Only now do I understand the depth of what he meant by serving to represent his family.
“I fight now so he has a purpose,” Fedorchuk says. “He’ll be needed after the victory.”
As I walk through the rubble of Hotel Druzhba in Pokrovsk, I feel the weight of the aftermath. Broken window glass crunches beneath my boots, police and recovery crews are present, and Polish TV news crews capture the scene. There is no sense of urgency. Time passes differently in the aftermath.
Two Russian Iskander ballistic missiles obliterated this residential block two dinnertimes ago, with the attacks staggered to strike first responders during the second attack. It’s called a double tap. Nine people were killed, and over eighty were wounded. There is no legitimate military target nearby. Residents say the hotel was popular among journalists and aid workers. This deliberate targeting of voices with reach is becoming more common in central and eastern Ukraine.
Down the street, I witness a young man on the fifth floor of an apartment building sifting through the remnants of his bedroom while looking up at the hole that was once his ceiling. He argues with his mother, who stands a few feet away in her own open silo. On the ground level, a bicycle remains chained to a fence, untouched and pristine. It holds…