Moscow: Russia said on Friday that its forces had taken control of the salt-mining town of Soledar in eastern Ukraine overnight after days of relentless fighting, claiming Moscow’s first big battlefield again after half a year of military setbacks.
Russia said the capture of Soledar would make it possible to cut off Ukrainian supply routes to the larger nearby city of Bakhmut and trap remaining Ukrainian forces there. Russia has been trying to seize Bakhmut for months in brutal warfare.
“The capture of Soledar was made possible by the constant bombardment of the enemy by assault and army aviation, missile forces, and artillery of a grouping of Russian forces,” Moscow’s defence ministry said.
Kyiv says Russia threw a wave of soldiers and mercenaries into a futile battle for the barren land bombarded by Soledor and US officials say a Russian victory there or even in Bakhmut, would make little difference to the overall war. Soledar, with a pre-war population of only 10,000, sits above the salt mines. Bakhmut, ten times as large, is an important provincial district center.
“Even if both Bakhmut and Soledar fall to the Russians, it’s not going to have a strategic impact on the war itself,” U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters at the White House on Thursday, “and it certainly isn’t going to stop the Ukrainians or slow them down.”
The Wagner ultra-nationalist mercenary company run by an ally of President Vladimir Putin claimed on Wednesday to have captured Soledar, but Russia’s defense ministry has so far remained silent.
“The night in Soledar was hot, battles continued,” Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
“The enemy threw almost all the main forces in the direction of Donetsk and maintains a high intensity of offensive. Our fighters are bravely trying to maintain the defense,” she said, referring to the Donetsk region which includes Soledar.
On Thursday outside Soledar, Ukrainian soldiers dug in well-fortified trenches deep in the chilly forest. The echo of the explosions was heard far and wide.
“The situation is difficult but stable. We’re holding back the enemy … we’re fighting back.”
Ukrainian officials said on Thursday that more than 500 civilians were trapped in Soledar, including 15 children. In an overnight video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked the two units in Soledar, saying they remained in their positions and inflicted significant damage on the enemy. He did not provide further details.
The front lines in Ukraine have barely budged for two months since Russia’s last big retreat in the south. Meanwhile, the battles around Bakhmut and Soledar became what both sides called a “meat grinder” – a brutal war of attrition claiming the lives of thousands of soldiers needed for decisive battles ahead.
The new year has brought important pledges of extra Western weapons for Ukraine, which is seeking armour to mount mechanized battles against Russian tanks. Last week, France, Germany, and the United States pledged to send armoured fighting vehicles. In recent times, the focus has shifted to main battle tanks, which Western countries have not yet provided. Finland joined Poland on Friday in pledging to send German-made Leopard tanks to Ukraine as part of the Western alliance. This requires the permission of Berlin, which until now was hesitant, but has recently indicated a willingness to allow it.
Putin launched the invasion on 24 February, saying Kyiv’s ties with the West threatened Russia’s security, and Russia has since claimed to have annexed four Ukrainian provinces. Ukraine and its allies call it an unprovoked war to seize territory, and Kyiv says it will fight until it takes back all its land.