- By Jonathan Beale, defence correspondent
- Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine
Ukrainian forces are trying to retake the city of Bakhmut in the country’s east. The BBC was given exclusive access to a team of elite snipers, referred to as “the Ghosts of Bakhmut”, who are conducting night raids nearby.
Ghost, the sniping team’s commander, takes us to the place he calls the “edge of existence” – their base on the outskirts of the city.
“Ghost is my call sign” he tells me. “When we started bringing terror to Bakhmut, we got the name ‘the Ghosts of Bakhmut’.”
Their base is already well within the range of Russian artillery. Ghost doesn’t flinch at the crump of a shell landing nearby. “The artillery always makes people worry,” he says. “You can hide from artillery, but not from a sniper”.
The Ghosts, a team of around 20 soldiers, have been operating on the edges of Bakhmut for the past six months. They often hunt for high-value targets.
I ask Ghost how many Russians his team have killed. He says, “there’s a confirmed number – 524. Seventy-six of those are mine”. The team electronically records every shot through the sights of their rifle.
Not everyone’s keeping count though. Kuzia, the marksman for tonight’s mission, says “it’s nothing to be proud of. We’re not killing people, we’re destroying the enemy”.
Before the war he worked in a factory. He says he never liked guns, but felt compelled to take up arms when Russia invaded.
Kuzia does one final check of his US-made Barrett sniper rifle: “Each mission is dangerous, when we make a mistake the enemy can hit you,” he says. “Of course I’m scared – only a fool wouldn’t be.”
On tonight’s mission he’ll be accompanied by Taras, his spotter. Kusch is the driver – who’ll bring them as close as possible to the front line. From there the two-man team will have to walk more than a mile to reach their target. Ghost will remain back at the base, along with the rookie, known simply as the Brit.
The youngest member of the team got the name after receiving his initial training in the UK. He’s yet to have his first confirmed kill.
Ghost says he’s handpicked every member of the team based on their “humanity and patriotism” rather than their military experience and skills.
As dusk approaches the team climbs into their armoured Humvee. I, and cameraman Moose Campbell, will accompany them to the drop-off point.
Kusch, the driver, tells us that part of the route is still being targeted by Russian artillery.
As he starts the engine the team all give themselves the sign of the cross. Kusch starts to play some music from his phone. He says the Ukrainian rap song gets them in the mood. But it’ll also mask the sound of the shelling.
At first it’s hard to hear the explosions nearby because of the rattle of the Humvee, which Kusch drives at speed over pot-holed tracks. But he points to the sky several times and warns, “incoming”. There are a few thuds nearby.
We pass half a dozen wrecked Ukrainian armoured vehicles that weren’t so fortunate. Kusch points to minefields on either side of the dirt track.
Twenty minutes later we come to an abrupt halt close to a ruined house. The two-man sniper team open the doors and disappear towards a tree line. Kusch shouts out, “God be with you” before making a fast exit.
As we return there’s a flash of orange and a louder explosion. The Humvee starts to rattle even more. Kusch opens his door, while driving, to look behind and lets out a stream of swear words.
A piece of shrapnel has shredded one of the back tyres. It’s a nerve-wracking hobble back to base. When we finally return he shows us the large piece of jagged metal which tore apart the tyre.
It’s now dark and the shelling has subsided. Inside their base they anxiously hold on to their radios for news from the sniper team. Kusch and the Brit pace the floor.
Ghost makes a phone call to his seven-year-old daughter. She’s on speaker when she excitedly shouts, “I love you daddy”. It’s a brief burst of normality – but he’s already taught her how to strip a gun.
Seven hours later, with little sleep, it’s time for the extraction. We shelter in the building while there’s a volley of incendiary fire, and then make our way back into the Humvee.
This time it’s dark, but Kusch tries to drive from memory – avoiding turning on the headlights to attract attention. Another abrupt halt and the two-man sniper team gets back inside the Humvee.
The relief is palpable when we get back to their base.
Kuzia says: “One shot, one target.”
Later they show us the video from the night-scope. They say it was a Russian machine-gunner who’d been firing at Ukrainian troops near the front line.
They’ll rest now until the next night’s mission. Kuzia says: “I’m happy to be back and happy that everyone’s alive”.
Over the past six months several of the team have been injured, including the commander Ghost. But none of them have been killed.
Ghost says “every trip may be our last, but we’re doing a noble deed”.
One small team of snipers won’t win this war, or even take back Bakhmut. But they believe they’re having an impact.
Kusch says it has a psychological effect on their enemy – hunting down one Russian soldier at a time from a place that can’t be seen and with a sound that can’t be heard.