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    Ukraine’s 80th Air Assault Brigade is in the thick of the battle for Bakhmut

    In the middle of a vast hilly area, a few dozen kilometers from the front line, new recruits of the 80th Ukrainian Air Assault Brigade trained under the watchful eyes of a few instructors. This Thursday, March 9, they had only a few hours left, one night, before being deployed on a battlefield for the first time.

    Vitaly, a construction worker, arrived in the morning. The calm-looking man went through intensive training for five weeks instead of three months after presenting himself at a recruitment office. He said he was ready to defend the martyred city of Bakhmut and its surroundings because “it can’t be any other way. I have a son to protect. He will be 1 year old on May 3.” Before leaving, he made a promise to his wife that he would return home. “She absolutely wants to have a little girl,” he said, smiling.

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    The section commander, in charge of coordinating the training, does not know if the new recruits are ready to join the battle in the city that for months, Russian forces have been fighting for. “Everything will be decided tomorrow during their first combat experience,” said Oleh, 28. “It’s very hard to hold on psychologically when you are constantly under bombardment.”

    The exercise ended in the reddish light of the late day. The soldiers packed up a machine gun and antitank rocket launchers before heading to an armored vehicle. The next day, they would be deployed in different units of the legendary 80th Air Assault Brigade based in Lviv, western Ukraine.

    Bakhmut, a symbolic fortress of Ukrainian resistance

    “The vast majority of soldiers in our brigade are people who came of their own accord with fire in their eyes,” said Bohdan, a 27-year-old soldier. Before being sent to the Bakhmut area, the unit distinguished itself in the counter-offensive launched in September 2022 that led to the liberation of the occupied territories of the Kharkiv region.

    Mykhailo, a lieutenant commander of an artillery unit of the 80th Air Assault Brigade, at the entrance to his position's shelter on the outskirts of Bakhmut, Ukraine, on March 10, 2023.
    Soldiers from the 80th Air Assault Brigade prepare to fire on Russian infantry approaching Bakhmut, Ukraine, on March 10, 2023.
    A recruit of the 80th Air Assault Brigade during machine gun training in the Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, on March 9, 2023.

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    But Bohdan was less optimistic about the morale of those who have been fighting since the beginning of the invasion of the country, “those who have not had a vacation in a year.” He did not specify the number of wounded and dead in the formation, but ended by saying that “the hardest thing is when you see that there are only two people left in your unit, you and one other.”

    The Kremlin’s army and mercenaries from the private Wagner militia have nibbled away at swathes of devastated villages with heavy casualties in their attempt to encircle the “fortress” city erected as a symbol of Ukrainian resistance. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he was pessimistic about the outcome of the battle. “We cannot rule out that Bakhmut may eventually fall in the coming days,” said Stoltenberg on the sidelines of a meeting of European defense ministers in Stockholm on Wednesday, March 8.

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