The battle of Soledar continues, according to Ukraine, refuting Russia’s "false" claims of victory. The small salt-mining town 18 km from Bakhmut, the epicentre of the war, has seen fierce fighting in the last few days as Russian troops attempt to secure a victory following a series of humiliating defeats.
Russian sources announced on January 10 that the Wagner mercenary group had captured the city, forcing Ukrainian troops to retreat. However, Donetsk Oblast Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko told the Kyiv Independent that fierce fighting is still ongoing, with Russia suffering “huge losses in manpower and equipment”, in an interview on January 11.
"The Ukrainian military is fighting for every centimetre (of Donetsk Oblast), including Soledar," Kyrylenko said from Kramatorsk, Ukraine's eastern stronghold, 20 km from Soledar.
Fighting is reportedly concentrated around the north and west of the city, even taking place in the salt mines, according to the governor. The Russian Ministry of Defence alleges that the town is blocked from the north and south.
However, Russian sources are contradicting each other’s claims. Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed victory but Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has not yet confirmed this, saying instead that Russians should wait for the full report from the Ministry of Defence.
Nevertheless, Russian forces have taken over a large chunk of the town. The British Ministry of Defence stated on January 10 that Russian and Wagner's focus is “likely in control of most of the settlement”, having made tactical advances over the last week.
According to Kyrylenko, Russia is using siege tactics and will try to capture the town, which is practically in ruins with over 80% of the settlement destroyed. Currently, 550 civilians are living in the war-torn city, suffering from temperatures as low as -14C at night without access to heating. Humanitarian and evacuation convoys are prohibited from entering the city due to safety concerns.
Following Russia’s failure to capture Bakhmut during the last five months, with Ukrainian forces repeatedly fending off attacks, the occupation of Soledar would be a symbolic victory for Russia, albeit one with a huge cost of life. However, the US think-tank the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) does not believe it would provide Russia with a significant strategic advantage to seize Bakhmut.
“Even taking the most generous Russian claims at face value, the capture of Soledar would not portend an immediate encirclement of Bakhmut. Control of Soledar will not necessarily allow Russian forces to exert control over critical Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) into Bakhmut,” the ISW stated in its report on January 10.
Bakhmut, a major transportation hub, is the main target of Russia and an obsession of General Sergei Surovikin, who was appointed as overall commander of the war against Ukraine following spectacular defeats in Kharkiv and Kherson. Taking Bakmut would help Russian troops advance towards the Ukrainian strongholds of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, but despite the destruction of 60% of the city, Ukrainians still remain in control and this military failure has not gone unpunished. Surovikin was demoted to deputy commander and replaced by General Valeriy Gerasimov, BBC News reported on January 11, although Moscow has not explicitly blamed this on the Bakhmut setback.
Russia shelled the Bakhmut region 249 times just in the past day and the “difficult” situation in both Soledar and Bakhmut has led Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to call for more support from the Alliance, noting the recent weapons support from Germany, the US and France.
“This shows once again the bravery of Ukrainian forces as they fight to defend their homeland. It also shows how vital it is that we step up our military support to Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said at a news conference, the Kyiv Independent reported.
For now, Ukraine will continue to face the Russian onslaught in Soledar. However, if Russian artillery intensifies to the point Ukrainian troops are unable to hide and hold the defence, then the troops will be left with little option but to withdraw, according to Kyrylenko.
“Our fighters are (currently) giving the most valuable – their lives – for our freedom and independence,” he told the Kyiv Independent.