A Ukrainian soldier fires a mortar at Russian positions in Bakhmut in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022. AP Photo/Libkos, File.
KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s military said its troops were still defending the eastern town of Soledar, refuting claims of battlefield victory by the leader of a Russian mercenary outfit.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, released a photo of himself and some of his fighters in what he said was one of Soledar’s salt mines. Prigozhin claimed that his paramilitary soldiers — many of whom are released prisoners — had seized the town, adding that combat continued in the city center against encircled Ukrainian troops. If true, this would mark Russia’s first significant territorial gain against Ukrainian forces since July.
Fierce fighting has raged in Soledar, a town known for its salt mines and with a prewar population of 10,000, as part of Russia’s ongoing campaign to capture the nearby city of Bakhmut. Prigozhin boasted that his Wagner forces single-handedly took Soledar, but Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov struck a more cautious tone on Wednesday, telling reporters in Moscow, “Let’s not rush.”
“There is a positive momentum of advancement there, but military success will be achieved when we meet the goals set by the commander-in-chief,” Peskov said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Ukrainian military officials said their forces had not abandoned Soledar and were still inflicting heavy casualties on the Russians. Ukraine’s deputy minister of defense, Hanna Maliar, described a bloody, ongoing battle, in which Russian forces have conducted brazen, practically suicidal attacks.
“The enemy does not pay attention to the large losses of its personnel and continues to actively storm,” Maliar said. “The approaches to our positions are simply littered with the bodies of dead enemy fighters.”
“Soledar is not under the control of the Russian Federation, our troops are not encircled, they continue combat, and we retain the ability to supply them with weapons and provisions,” said Col. Serhiy Cherevatyi, spokesman for the Ukrainian armed forces’ Eastern Group.
While the town is not strategically significant, Russian control of Soledar could put pressure on nearby Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut, which has become the war’s most intense battlefield this winter. Yet, that potential advantage could be minimal.
According to an update on Tuesday by the Institute for the Study of War: “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 into Bakhmut.”
Although Russia still controls about one-fifth of Ukraine’s territory, and fighting still rages along a roughly 600-mile-long front line, Ukrainian forces have retaken about 55% of the land Russia invaded after the full-scale war began in February 2022.
With the ground war basically deadlocked, the battle for Bakhmut has become a bloody test of wills for both sides. In addition to infantry assaults, the Russians continue to pummel Bakhmut with artillery and waves of infantry assaults, inflicting catastrophic damage.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits troops in the front-line city of Bakhmut on Dec. 20, 2022. Photo by the President of Ukraine website.
The carnage of Bakhmut and Soledar stands as a grim bellwether for how the overall war may go in 2023.
At this point in the war, Putin shows no sign of backing down and suing for peace. To account for its heavy losses in men and materiel over 11 months of full-scale warfare, the Kremlin has already mobilized some 300,000 conscripts, bought exploding drones from Iran, and reportedly purchased more artillery shells from North Korea.
Looking forward, Ukraine’s top military commanders warn that Russian forces may be regrouping for another offensive this winter, including a possible attack on Kyiv from Belarus. Ukrainian officials also recently warned that Moscow may soon mobilize an additional 500,000 conscripts in preparation for renewed offensives.
The Bakhmut and Soledar battles mark a departure from Ukraine’s defensive war effort, which has largely favored maneuver warfare over static battles of attrition. While the battle has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance, some Western and Ukrainian experts warn that going toe-to-toe against Russian forces in attrition warfare may drain Kyiv’s resources for future fights.
“I don’t think the outcome at Bakhmut is that significant compared to what it costs Russia to achieve it. Those costs may impinge on [Russian] military strategy. But this costly battle could also impact Ukraine’s offensive plans, and the fight for Bakhmut looks increasingly uncertain,” Michael Kofman, director of the CNA Corp.’s Russia Center, tweeted on Jan. 11.
The fights in Bakhmut and Soledar also highlight Moscow’s willingness to sacrifice its soldiers to overwhelm Ukrainian defenses through sheer manpower. Prigozhin, for his part, said Wagner’s objective isn’t simply to take Bakhmut — he wants to wear down Ukraine’s most elite forces in the process — grim sign of things to come should Moscow mobilize an additional half-million conscripts, as Kyiv predicts.
“Now the terrorist state and its propagandists are trying to pretend that some part of our city of Soledar — a city that was almost completely destroyed by the occupiers — is allegedly some kind of Russian achievement,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a Jan. 11 video address.
"They will present — and are already presenting — this to their society in such a way as to support mobilization and to give hope to those who support aggression. But the fighting continues."