KYIV: Russian troops have stepped up an assault on the small salt mining town of Soledar in eastern Ukraine, forcing Ukrainian troops to repel waves of attacks led by mercenary forces, officials in Kyiv said.
Britain’s defence ministry said on Tuesday that Russian and forces of the Wagner contract group were probably now in control of most of the town, in the industrial Donbas region, after advances in the last four days.
Seizing Soledar would be advantageous to Russian forces as they fight for control of the city of Bakhmut, a few kilometres to the southwest, where troops from both sides have been taking heavy losses in some of the most intense trench warfare since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly 11 months ago. It would also give Russia a welcome battlefield victory after a series of setbacks in recent months.
“Russia’s Soledar axis is highly likely an effort to envelop Bakhmut from the north, and to disrupt Ukrainian lines of communication,” Britain said in an intelligence briefly.
Prominent journalist Yuriy Butusov, who is embedded with Ukrainian troops in Soledar, wrote for the online outlet New Voice that Russian forces had established fire control over the main Ukrainian supply route to the town. “This is not a complete encirclement, but normal supply along the route is impossible, (and) this is critical for defence,” he said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address on Monday that Bakhmut and Soledar were holding on despite widespread destruction.
He cited new and fiercer attacks in Soledar, where he said no walls have been left standing and the land was covered with Russian corpses.
“Thanks to the resilience of our soldiers in Soledar, we have won for Ukraine additional time and additional strength,” Zelenskiy said. He did not spell out what he meant by gaining time or strength.
Bakhmut is located on a strategic supply line between the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which make up the Donbas. Gaining control of it could give Russia a stepping stone to advance on two bigger cities — Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.
Russia’s defence ministry did not mention either Soledar or Bakhmut in a media briefing on Monday.
Wagner was founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Drawing some recruits from Russia’s prisons and known for uncompromising violence, it is active in conflicts in Africa and has taken a prominent role in Russia’s war effort in Ukraine. Prigozhin has been trying to capture Bakhmut and Soledar for months at the cost of many lives on both sides.
He said on Saturday its significance lay in a network of cavernous mining tunnels below the ground, which can hold troops or tanks. A US official has said Prigozhin was eyeing the salt and gypsum from the mines, believed to extend over 100 miles underground.
Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said fighting in Bahkmut and Soledar was “the most intense on the entire frontline”. “So many remain on the battlefield ... either dead or wounded,” he said on YouTube.
“They attack our positions in waves, but the wounded as a rule die where they lie, either from exposure as it is very cold or from blood loss. No one is coming to help them or to collect the dead from the battlefield.”
In an evacuee centre in Kramatorsk, Olha, 60, said she had fled Soledar after moving from apartment to apartment as each was destroyed in tank battles.
“There isn’t one house left intact. Apartments were burning, breaking in half,” said Olha, who gave only her first name.
Published in Dawn, January 11th, 2023