Ukraine says mining town holding out against Russian assault
Wednesday, January 11, 2023 | 8:04 am
KYIV, Ukraine – The fate of a ruined salt mining town in eastern Ukraine hung in the balance Wednesday as Ukraine said its forces were facing off against a furious Russian offensive in one of the fiercest and costliest land battles the last of almost 11 months. war.
Soledar was under heavy shelling by Russian forces using aircraft, mortars and rockets. A Ukrainian military officer near Soledar said the Russian attack was unrelenting.
The Russians initially send one or two waves of soldiers, many from Russian private military contractor Wagner Group, who take heavy casualties while probing Ukraine’s defenses, the officer told The Associated Press.
After those first attacks, when Ukrainian troops have taken a few casualties and are exhausted, the Russians send in a new wave of soldiers, paratroopers or trained special forces, said the Ukrainian officer, who insisted on anonymity for security reasons.
The fall of Soledar, while unlikely to provide a turning point in the war, would be a price for a Kremlin starved of good news from the battlefield in recent months.
It would also provide Russian troops with a strategic springboard for their efforts to capture other areas of Donetsk province that remain under Ukrainian control, such as the nearby strategic city of Bakhmut.
Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk province, which together make up the Donbass region bordering Russia, were Moscow’s main stated targets in its invasion of Ukraine, but the fighting has largely remained at a stalemate.
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar denied Russian claims that Soledar had fallen, but she acknowledged that heavy fighting was continuing.
The spokesman for Ukraine’s Eastern Group of Forces, Serhiy Cherevati, also rejected the Russian claims.
Late Tuesday, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of Wagner Group, claimed in audio reports posted on his Russian social media platform that his soldiers had taken control of Soledar, though he also said fighting continued in a “cauldron” in the center of the city.
AP was unable to verify that claim.
Russian forces had “positive dynamics in the advance” on Soledar, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, but he did not announce its capture when asked about claims it has fallen under Russian control.
“Let’s not rush and wait for official statements,” he said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said this week that “everything has been completely destroyed” in the area due to relentless shelling and weeks of close house-to-house fighting.
“All the land near Soledar is covered with the corpses of the invaders and wounds from the blows,” Zelenskyy said. “This is what madness looks like.”
Soledar, known for salt mining and processing, has little intrinsic value. But it lies at a strategic point 10 kilometers (six miles) north of the city of Bakhmut, which Russian forces intend to encircle.
Taking Bakhmut would disrupt Ukraine’s supply lines and open a path for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces to push toward Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, Ukraine’s main strongholds in Donetsk province.
The fall of Soledar would make “holding Bakhmut far more precarious for Ukraine,” Michael Kofman, director of Russia Studies at the nonprofit research organization CAN in Arlington, Virginia, noted Wednesday.
However, the costly war of attrition, with heavy casualties expected, could make a Russian victory as costly as a defeat.
“I don’t think the result in Bakhmut is that important compared to what it costs Russia to achieve it,” Kofman said in a tweet.
The Wagner group, which is now said to include a large contingent of convicts recruited into Russian prisons, led the attack on Soledar and Bakhmut.
Western intelligence has estimated that the Wagner Group accounts for up to a quarter of all Russian fighters in Ukraine.
A success in Soledar and Bakhmut would help Prigozhin, who has been an outspoken critic of Russia’s military leadership, increase his influence in the Kremlin.
Russia illegally annexed Donetsk, Luhansk and two other Ukrainian provinces in September, but its troops have struggled to advance. After Ukrainian forces retook the southern city of Kherson in November, the battle raged around Bakhmut.
The Institute for the Study of War said Russian forces were up against “joint Ukrainian resistance” around Bakhmut.
“The reality of block-by-block control of the terrain in Soledar is clouded by the dynamic nature of urban combat … and Russian forces have largely struggled to make significant tactical gains in the Soledar area for months,” the Washington-based opined. . said the tank.
A remarkable feature of the fighting near Bakhmut is that some of it has taken place around the entrances to disused salt mine tunnels that run for about 200 kilometers (120 miles), according to Western intelligence reports.
Several frontline towns in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces have witnessed intense fighting in recent months. Putin identified the Donbass region as a focus from the start of the war, where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting there since 2014.
Russia occupied almost all of Luhansk during the summer. Donetsk escaped the same fate and the Russian military subsequently poured manpower and resources around Bakhmut.
On another front, Zelenskyy on Wednesday visited the western city of Lviv and held a high-level meeting on the security situation near Ukraine’s border with Kremlin ally Belarus, the president’s office said in a statement.
Russia has stationed more than 10,000 of its soldiers in Belarus and conducts regular military exercises in the country, which shares a roughly 1,000-kilometer (600-mile) border with Ukraine. The Kremlin used Belarus as a staging ground to send troops and missiles into Ukraine when Russia invaded on February 24.
Concerns have grown in recent months about Moscow’s possible pressure on Belarus to open a new front in western Ukraine, perhaps to target supply routes for Western arms and other overseas aid that have helped Kiev’s forces maintain a defense and launch a counteroffensive.
Zelenskyy said he had no immediate concerns about Minsk joining the war, but added: “We must be ready,” the statement said.
Meanwhile, Putin asserted on Wednesday that Russia had successfully resisted Western pressure, particularly sanctions, over its invasion of Ukraine and vowed that the country has enough resources to strengthen its military while continuing social programs and meeting other goals. development.
“None of what our enemies predicted has happened,” Putin said in a video call with senior members of his cabinet.
“We will strengthen our defense capabilities and undoubtedly resolve all issues related to the supplies of military units involved in the special military operation,” he said, using the Kremlin’s euphemism for war.
He said Russia has received 200 billion rubles (about $3 billion) in additional revenue from higher oil and gas prices caused by the war.