Fighting Wagner is like a ‘zombie movie’, says Ukrainian soldier

Near Bakhmut, Ukraine (CNN) — Southwest of the town of Bakhmut, Ukrainian soldiers Andriy and Borisych live in a candlelit bunker under frozen ground. For several weeks they have faced hundreds of fighters belonging to the Russian private military contractor Wagner charging at Ukrainian defenses.

Disguised in a ski mask, Andriy recounts a seemingly endless firefight as they were attacked by an onslaught of Wagner fighters.

“We were fighting for like 10 hours straight. And it wasn’t waves, it was non-stop. So it was like they just kept coming.”

Their AK-47 rifles got so hot from the constant shooting, Andriy says, that they had to keep changing them.

“There were about 20 soldiers on our side. And let’s say 200 on your side,” he says.

Wagner’s way of warfare is to send in a first wave of attackers comprising mostly raw recruits straight from Russian jails. They know little of military tactics and are poorly equipped. Most just hope that if they survive their six-month contract they can go home instead of going back to a cell.

“They make the group, say 10 soldiers, reach 30 meters, then they start digging to hold the position,” Andriy says of Wagner.

Another group follows, he says, to claim another 30 meters. “This is how, step by step, (Wagner) is trying to move forward, while losing a lot of people in the process.”

Only when the first wave is exhausted or reduced does Wagner send in more experienced fighters, often from the flanks, in an effort to overrun the Ukrainian positions.

Andriy says that facing the assault was a terrifying and unreal experience.

“Our machine gunner was almost going crazy, because he was shooting at them. And he said, I know I shot him, but he doesn’t go down. And then after some time, when he maybe bleeds out, he just goes down.”

Andriy compares the battle to a scene from a zombie movie. “They’re climbing over the dead bodies of their friends, stepping on them,” he says.

“It seems that it is very, very likely that they were receiving some drugs before the attack,” he says, a claim that CNN has not been able to independently verify.

Bakhmut Wagner

Andriy and others in their unit shelter in a bunker southwest of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine on January 31, 2023. Credit: Matthias Somm/CNN

Even after the first waves were cleared out, the attack continued as the Ukrainian defenders say they ran out of bullets and found themselves surrounded.

“The problem was that they surrounded us. And that’s how they surrounded us. They came from the other side. We didn’t expect them to come from there.”

“We were shooting to the last bullet, so we threw all the grenades we had and that left just me and a few guys. We were defenseless in that situation.”

They were lucky. Having held out until the last moment, the Ukrainian fighters say, Wagner withdrew at the end of the day.

Andriy’s account of Wagner’s approach matches that in a Ukrainian intelligence report obtained by CNN last week.

According to that report, if Wagner’s forces manage to take a position, artillery support allows them to dig trenches and consolidate their gains. According to Ukrainian intercepts, coordination between Wagner and the Russian Army is often lacking.

CNN contacted Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin this week about allegations of abuse within the company’s ranks.

Prigozhin responded in a statement that was largely sarcastic in tone via his press service, calling CNN an “open enemy” before insisting that Wagner is an “exemplary military organization that complies with all necessary laws and regulations.” of modern warfare.

As he speaks to CNN, the fields above Andriy’s bunker reverberate with near-constant shelling. The screeching of outgoing artillery is followed by a distant thud a few seconds later and a few miles away.

The trill of small arms fire erupts as Ukrainian soldiers spot what they believe to be a Russian drone and try to shoot it down.

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The unit has just survived a recent attack by Wagner’s troops, says Andriy. Credit: Matthias Somm/CNN

Andriy’s unit says it captured a Wagner fighter, whose story is as tragic as his tactics are primitive and brutal.

According to a recording of the man being questioned, the man is an engineer, but had been selling drugs to earn some money. He volunteered to join Wagner in the belief that he would expunge her criminal record so that her daughter would have less trouble following her dream of becoming a lawyer.

“And when did you realize that you are only meat?” Andriy asks him.

“On the first combat mission. They took us to the front line on December 28. They sent us last night.”

“How many people were in the group?”

“Ten,” he replies.

Andriy says that he had told the engineer: “Obviously, you know you will be killed (in battle). But you are afraid to fight for your freedom in your country.”

“He said: ‘Yes, this is true. We are afraid of Putin.'”

Andriy contrasted Russia’s President Vladimir Putin with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, who not long ago was the country’s leading comedian.

“Our advantage is that yes, we do, we can really choose the guy to [los rusos] they call clown. But as we can see, now, this guy is really the leader of the free world, right now, on our planet.”

Andriy, who is from the southwestern city of Odessa and joined within days of the Russian invasion, says that no matter how many more fighters are sent to storm their positions, they will resist.

“Most of my boys are volunteers. They had (a) good business, they had (a) good job, they had a good salary, but they came to fight for their country. And that makes a big difference,” he says.

“This is the war for freedom. It’s not even the war between Ukraine and Russia. This is a war between a regime and democracy.”

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Elton Gardner

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