UK says most of Ukrainian saltmine town near Bakhmut is in Russian hands after intensive fighting
10 Jan 2023
The Russian mercenary group Wagner has said it is fighting “heavy, bloody battles” for control of the town of Soledar as part of Moscow’s months-long offensive to capture Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region. Wagner’s claims appeared to be confirmed by the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD), which suggested that most of Soledar, a small town about six miles (10km) north of the key city of Bakhmut, was in Russian hands after Moscow continued to make “tactical advances”. The MoD said the efforts in Soledar over the past four days appeared to be aimed at encircling Bakhmut, although it added it believed that scenario was unlikely at present. Fighting in Soledar has reached its western outskirts as Ukrainian and Russian forces fight for control of the town’s salt mine, the tunnels of which have been eyed by Wagner as they can accommodate troops and armoured vehicles.
A feature of the battle near Bakhmut is that some of the fighting has been around entrances to disused salt mine tunnels that honeycomb the area, with the MoD update adding: “Both sides are likely concerned that [the tunnels] could be used for infiltration behind their lines.”
Beyond the salt mine, the Russian offensive appeared aimed at gaining control of the road beyond and the settlements of Blahodatne and Krasna Hora to the immediate north of Bakhmut.
Ukraine’s general staff said on Tuesday that Russian forces were trying to advance in three areas on the Donbas front: around Bakhmut, further south around Avdiivka and north around Lyman, in an attempt to secure the administrative border of Donetsk oblast in that area.
Highlighting the intensity of the Russian assault, Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to the Ukrainian president, said that in the past 24 hours Russian forces had made 281 attacks along the Bakhmut axis.
Ukraine’s deputy defence minister Hanna Malyar added that Russia had thrown “a large number of storm groups” into the battle. “The enemy is advancing literally on the bodies of their own soldiers and is massively using artillery, rocket launchers and mortars, hitting their own troops,” she said.
Russian forces, led by Wagner troops, have taken heavy losses in the fighting around Bakhmut. The mercenary group’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said earlier this week that Soledar was being stormed “exclusively” by Wagner units, saying they were fighting fiercely for the city’s administration building. Prigozhin said on social media on Tuesday: “On the western outskirts of Soledar there are heavy bloody battles. The armed forces of Ukraine are honourably defending the territory of Soledar.” The Kremlin-linked businessman, who has been hit with western sanctions, dismissed claims that Ukrainian forces were deserting frontlines en masse in Soledar.
“Let’s be honest with ourselves. The Ukrainian army is bravely fighting for Bakhmut and Soledar. Reports of their mass desertion are not true,” Prigozhin said, as cited by his press office on Telegram.
The capture of Bakhmut – a now devastated city that had a prewar population of 70,000 – has become one of Moscow’s main military objectives almost a year into its Ukraine mission. The intense focus on it has baffled many observers, however.
With the low ridges to the west dominated by Ukraine’s artillery, secondary lines of defences already in place should Bakhmut fall, and substantial Ukrainian reinforcements already deployed in depth, most analysts believe Moscow will continue to struggle with its offensive.
In his nightly address on Monday, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, again underlined the difficulty of his forces’ position in Soledar, saying troops were withstanding “new and even tougher assaults”, with some speculating he may be preparing public opinion for the loss of the town.
He said the town had been flattened by the fighting. “Everything is completely destroyed. Thanks to the resilience of our soldiers in Soledar, we have won for Ukraine additional time and additional strength.”
He did not spell out what he meant by gaining time or strength. Zelenskiy said Russia had gained little in its assault on Soledar at the cost of “thousands” of its troops, adding: “The area near Soledar is covered with corpses of the invaders. This is what madness looks like.”
The Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said fighting in Bakhmut 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.”
Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this article.