When Palisa arrived at his post in mid-January, the assessments he heard from the officers around him echoed Washington’s pessimism.“Those guys said ‘I don’t know, maybe two or three weeks.’ But months later and we’re still here, trying to do our best to hold the city,” Palisa said, expressing confidence in the mission.

“There is this fluid motion going on,” said a Ukrainian first lieutenant who asked to be identified by his call sign Tatarin, in keeping with military protocol. Russian attacks along the front allow their forces to advance a few hundred meters before being pushed back hours later. “It’s hard to distinguish exactly where the front line is because it moves like Jell-O,” he said.

“The situation on the road is constantly moving,” Tatarin said, describing how positions shift throughout the day along Ukraine’s main supply road in and out of Bakhmut. “In the morning we can control it, and then we can lose it and take it back. But most of the time Ukrainian forces still control the road.”

Once inside Bakhmut, the fight almost immediately slowed to a block-by-block slog. At times, the two sides would battle for weeks over control of a handful of residential blocks, Melnikav said.

“If you look at it in a strategic way, Ukrainian forces are holding a lot of enemy troops inside the city; it prevents them from going to different parts of the front line,” Tatarin said. “That’s why we’re holding on to the city, to eliminate as many enemy forces as possible.”

Palisa said ammunition shortages have repeatedly forced his troops inside Bakhmut to withdraw from their positions. “We don’t have enough rounds to engage them,” he said, “and I recognize we are paying with the lives of our soldiers.”

“I can give an assessment of the success of the mission only after everything is finished,” he said, dodging a question about whether the fight has been worth the lives lost and materiel spent.“Every soldier understands that when we are holding the city, when we are inside Bakhmut, we are giving time to our newly created units to train and prepare for future actions,” he said.

“I would like to see the city without all the destruction,” Palisa said. “But if it helps to save other Ukrainian cities, we need to do what we have to do.”