The Infrared Hunt for Russian Troops in the Battle for Bakhmut
BAKHMUT, Ukraine — Wind howled through leafless trees and through the windows of the blown-out apartment building as the surveillance team marched up flights of stairs covered with broken glass. The cold numbed their fingers as they set up their equipment: a laptop-size thermal imaging sight, its tripod and a Starlink satellite dish and battery.
The job was straightforward: The small team of several men, led by an American known as Wolf, would be Ukraine’s eyes on their battle for Bakhmut that night, huddling in the Soviet-style apartment and staring at the white-and-black glow of infrared images as it tried to identify Russian positions.
In front of them was a panoramic view of Bakhmut, a city in Ukraine’s east, mostly without power and devastated by six months of concerted shelling. Russian artillery strikes in the distance sent white flashes into the sky under a blood red moon. Rockets arced on the horizon.
One of the team members powered on the thermal sight and it whirred to life. He turned to his colleague who was fiddling with the satellite dish, trying to connect to the internet. “Comms green?” he asked.
A resident collected rainwater in Bakhmut on Tuesday. The devastated city is mostly without power after six months of concerted shelling.
What unfolded over the next half-dozen hours was a routine but essential part of the daily rhythm of the war — part drudgery and part urgent calculation as the team ascertained the coordinates for enemy positions, relaying them to the Ukrainian artillery battery miles away.
This type of mission, observed over the course of two days this month by reporters for The New York Times, was a window into how the war is being fought — a battle that is relentlessly violent but also technically sophisticated.
At its core, the fighting for Bakhmut looks little different from a battle in the Eastern European steppes of World War II: armies committing troops, tanks and massive artillery barrages to capture ground.
But Wolf’s team, armed with a satellite hookup and a thermal optic that can see a person up to five miles away, quickly showed how much war had changed in the last 80 years.
5 p.m.: Arriving in Bakhmut
Driving in almost complete darkness behind a mud-stained van carrying the rest of his team, Wolf turned off his headlights as he reached the outskirts of Bakhmut. Before losing signal, he was informed by Ukrainian intelligence of at least one Russian Orlan-10 drone flying over the city.
The State of the War
- Patriot Missiles: The United States appears poised to send its most advanced ground-based air defense system to Ukraine, in response to Kyiv’s urgent request for help in defending itself against Russia’s aerial onslaught.
- The Next Front?: Using missiles and saboteurs, Ukraine is focusing on the strategically important city of Melitopol, ahead of an expected Ukrainian offensive to drive Russian forces from southern Ukraine.
- Aid for Ukraine: World leaders announced more than $1 billion in swift aid for Ukraine to repair vital infrastructure and survive what is already a brutal winter.
- Avoiding Questions: President Vladimir V. Putin will not hold his annual December news conference. The move comes as Russia’s economy falters and follows a series of military setbacks in Ukraine.
In the days past, he said, there had been many more of the lawn mower-sounding crafts, but on this night, the low-hanging winter clouds were obstructing their visibility.
Without the drones, he added, Russian troops would be unable to direct their own artillery fire.
It was little consolation. The distant chatter of machine gun and cannon fire and the dull thuds of explosions were reminders that the fighting was close.
The team is part of Ukraine’s foreign legion, a unit created at the start of the war that has supplied thousands of international volunteers to bolster Ukraine’s ranks. Wolf, a 29-year-old former U.S. Marine, came to Ukraine because, as he put it, “I’m a good Christian and it was the right thing to do.”
The other members of his team include a Ukrainian, the translator; a Canadian; a Briton and an Australian. “No English,” Wolf stressed before they left the vehicles. Many of the remaining residents of Bakhmut were already suspicious of foreigners, especially those with rifles. The Times is referring to Wolf and the other soldiers by only their call signs to protect their identity.
After months of the Russian Army’s trying to capture the city, the fighting around Bakhmut, which had a prewar population of around 70,000, has devolved into two main sectors: the south and east. Russian troops were pushing from both sides to try to strangle the city’s supply lines.
Wolf’s apartment-turned-observation post could see both approaches with the thermal sight. The icy tree lines and the fields shone bright white; anything living or heated by an engine or by electricity showed up as a black blob.
8 p.m.: Calling in coordinates
The team member charged with finding Russian targets is a former artilleryman from Canada, who goes by the call sign Bear. He scanned the horizon with the thermal sight, shifting between the east, where the Russian soldiers had edged closer to a reservoir in the city, and the villages to the south.
But even if the team did spot a Russian tank or an advancing platoon, there was little they could do: They had no internet, and there was barely any cell service left in the city.
The translator, who is from the northern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv with the call sign Popov, fiddled with the Starlink’s concave, rectangular dish. He raised it so that it was level with the apartment’s mangled balcony, careful to keep it just low enough so that their Russian counterparts would miss its heat signature.
“Still searching for satellites,” he shrugged.
The balcony had been shelled before, and the door leading into the apartment had been destroyed. It appeared as if a small family had once lived there. A crib sat in the corner of one room. Wallpaper had started to peel on a wall where the roof leaked.
About an hour earlier, before the moon had slipped into the clouds, the Starlink had managed to connect to the internet. For a brief period, the team had access to the Ukrainian military group communications focused on Bakhmut, where units along the frontline were sharing known Russian positions and trying to coordinate for the night.
The team’s primary connection was the direct line back to the Ukrainian officers overseeing the artillery around the city, including the U.S.-supplied M777 howitzers loaded with GPS-guided shells. This time, the team had some information.
“Looks like they’re advancing on the eastern side,” Bear said, referring to Ukrainian troops. The Canadian had the thermal sight pressed to his eyes.
Indeed, outlined on the white screen were small black dots advancing into the trees near Bakhmut’s eastern reaches.
The crumps of artillery impacts drifted back to the apartment as the Russian forces responded to the attack. A tank, hit during the advance, burned in the distance. It appeared as a violent black plume of smoke on the thermal imager but only as a red speck to the naked eye, as if it were a distant star on the edge of the blacked-out city.
Bear continued to scan toward a village to the south, where Russian troops were trying to advance but had instead run into staunch Ukrainian resistance.
Much of the village had been destroyed in recent fighting. Now, members of the team said, the Ukrainian soldiers there were fighting building-to-building in close-quarter gun battles with their Russian adversaries.
“Got something,” Bear said.
His colleague, Dog, a former British Army bomb disposal technician who fought in Afghanistan, perked up and turned on his tablet.
He covered the screen and his face with a scarf, careful to prevent the backlight from compromising their position. He read the coordinates back.
The team had spotted what looked like two Russian transport trucks (given their size and their black thermal outline on the screen) idling in the middle of a field several miles away, well behind Russian lines.
Popov carefully sent the coordinates through the Ukrainian artillery channel.
“Anything else? Are there troops around it?” he asked. Bear looked back into the sight. No. The trucks were just sitting there.
Message sent, Popov said. “Let’s see if they do anything with it.”
The Starlink stopped working shortly after.
9 p.m.: No internet, no luck
Sitting in the abandoned apartment, the team faced several obstacles: destroyed cell towers; thick, low clouds disrupting the Starlink; and jamming by Russian GPS that was throwing off the thermal sight.
They worked on the Starlink, rebooting it and disconnecting it from its portable battery to no avail. The clouds were too dense.
In the distance to the northeast, dark red streaks of Russian Grad rockets streaked toward the heavily contested town of Soledar.
But the shelling, for the most part, had subsided. The Ukrainians held fire on the two idling trucks. Guided artillery shells are available in limited quantity and often only used on important targets.
Through the thermal sight, Bear observed what looked like a platoon of Ukrainian soldiers trying to advance near a village on the city’s southern outskirts — one of the many attacks and counterattacks that have become a staple of the battle for Bakhmut, where significant gains have been minimal.
It was around then that rocket fire echoed to the south. Seconds passed. The sky exploded. In a flash over the village the low clouds glowed white for what seemed like minutes as the contrails of incendiary munitions drifted to the ground.
“There’s nothing left to burn there,” a member of the team remarked from the darkness as the embers settled. “It’s all been destroyed.”
Someone took a picture on their phone. The team would leave in an hour, their mission over without the Starlink.
But the long night in Bakhmut was just beginning.