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Russia moves into Soledar, making rare progress amid stalled offensive

by Asami Terajima January 10, 2023 7:50 PM 3 min read
Ukrainian soldier travelling in a truck on the Bakhmut frontline in the eastern Donetsk Oblast on Jan. 8, 2023. (Photo by Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
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The small salt-mining town of Soledar is on the verge of being occupied by Russian troops after months of heavy fighting.

Occupying the "practically destroyed" town would constitute the Kremlin's largest success since July, potentially endangering Ukraine's positions in neighboring Bakhmut.

It will, however, have little impact on the war's outcome.

Russian troops, together with the Kremlin-controlled Wagner Group mercenaries, likely occupied most of Soledar over the past four days, the U.K. Defense Ministry said on Jan. 10.

Soledar sits 10 kilometers north of Bakhmut, which remains "Russia's main immediate operational objective" after a more than five-month-long battle to capture the city.

Russia's ongoing offensive into Soledar will "highly likely" disrupt Ukraine's logistics near Bakhmut in "an effort to envelop Bakhmut from the north," the ministry added.

Failing to capture Bakhmut, Russian troops are attempting to squeeze Ukrainians out.

Capturing the city could allow Russia to press toward key cities in Donetsk Oblast, including Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, located 40 kilometers west.

Serhii Cherevatyi, a spokesman for Ukraine's Eastern Military Command, said on Jan. 10 that Russian forces had struck Soledar and its surrounding area 86 times using various artillery systems over the past day.

Cherevatyi also said that the goal of the Ukrainian military defending Soledar is to exhaust Russians "so that even if they get a tactical win, it becomes a Pyrrhic victory."

He added that Russia was doing everything in Soledar to "seize the ruins" at the cost of an "uncountable number" of its soldiers.

"This is basically not a 21st-century war," Cherevatyi said on television.

Nearly emptied of its 10,000 residents, the months-long heavy battle has largely reduced Soledar to rubble.

"Everything is completely destroyed, life is almost gone," President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his evening address on Jan. 9

"It is very difficult. There are almost no walls left."

Ongoing battle

Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said on Jan. 10 that "heavy bloody battles" are unfolding on the western outskirts of Soledar as Ukrainian forces still "honorably defend" the town.

Prigozhin added that Russians were fighting in the "very center" of Soledar, but Ukrainian forces were "clinging to every building." Describing it as "a meat grinder," he claimed that "shooting battles take place at a fairly short distance."

Ukrainian officials have not acknowledged that fighting was taking place in such a close range nor that the Wagner had made it to the center of Soledar.

Referring to a widely circulated combat footage shared by Prigozhin, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based think-tank, confirmed on Jan. 9 that the video "shows Wagner Group fighters engaging in fierce small arms combat" near the town's administration center.

Since Prigozhin's Wagner Group could not bring Moscow's long-sought success in Bakhmut, he appears determined to please Putin with any victory.

"Prigozhin continues to use reports of Wagner Group success in Soledar to bolster the Wagner Group's reputation as an effective fighting force," the ISW said on Jan. 9.

"Prigozhin will continue to use both confirmed and fabricated Wagner Group success in Soledar and Bakhmut to promote the Wagner Group as the only Russian force in Ukraine capable of securing tangible gains."

How would it affect Bakhmut?

While Soledar is located in close proximity to Bakhmut, military analysts say that the potential capture of Soledar will not significantly affect the situation in the city.

Kyrylo Mykhailov, an analyst with Conflict Intelligence Team, an independent Russian investigative group, told the Kyiv Independent that capturing Soledar would leave Russia "a long time away from the big prize," which is currently Bakhmut.

Mykhailov said there are a few crucial roads west of Bakhmut, where Ukrainian forces remain dominant. Therefore, Russia still appears far from encircling Bakhmut after capturing Soledar.

Capturing Soledar would help Russia approach Bakhmut from the north, but an encirclement is still a distant goal for Moscow despite confirmed advances in the town, the ISW said in its Jan. 7 report.

"Recent Russian gains in Soledar do not portend an imminent encirclement of Bakhmut, contrary to claims made by Russian sources," the ISW said then.

To cut Ukraine's supply line to Bakhmut, Russia would need to establish control over at least two highways west of Soledar, the ISW said.

Ukraine has other logistic routes to sustain its forces in Bakhmut as well, "making the entire discussion of an encirclement at this point bizarre."

“Considering that the recent rate of gains in this area has been a few hundred meters a day, at most, it is highly unlikely that Russian forces will be successful in cohering a mechanized move towards encircling Bakhmut,” the ISW reported on Jan. 7.

Kyiv-based military analyst Oleh Zhdanov agreed that besieging Bakhmut would still be difficult for Russian forces should they capture Soledar.

While Bakhmut sits on a strategic supply route connecting Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, capturing the city would not have a big impact on the rest of the battlefield situation in the region, Zhdanov said.

He added that both Bakhmut and Soledar are small settlements, 70,000 and 10,000 people each, and are not an imminent gateway to Kramatorsk.

Since November, Ukrainian forces have begun building its second defense line near Chasiv Yar, a town 20 kilometers west of Bakhmut, to contain a potential Russian breakthrough.

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