Why does ‘Putin’s chef’ want Ukraine’s Soledar so badly? | Russia-Ukraine war News
Kyiv, Ukraine – For analysts, if Moscow is able to capture Soledar, a small salt-mining town in Ukraine’s war-torn southeast, the “victory” would be little more than a consolation prize for its failed military efforts. Russia.
For the Kremlin and pro-Moscow separatists, however, taking the city with a pre-war population of 10,000 would be a ground-breaking triumph.
And Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Russia’s Wagner Group, a private army, offers Soledar access to mineral wealth, a stockpile of firearms and a higher place in the Kremlin pecking order.
Prigozhin is known as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “chef” after getting rich from government contracts to feed soldiers, schoolchildren and guests at state banquets.
For months, he has been trying to capture the nearby city of Bakhmut – an important logistics hub, control of which would allow Russian and separatist forces to advance deep into southeastern Ukraine.
Despite countless attacks, shelling and the reported loss of thousands of soldiers, including fighters who were recruited from Russian prisons, newly mobilized reservists and men forcibly recruited from areas controlled by Ukrainian separatists, the Wagner Group has failed to take decisive action Bakhmutin.
The setback is particularly humiliating after a months-long series of Russian losses and retreats in eastern and southern Ukraine that have exposed what some observers see as disorganized, poorly coordinated and poorly motivated Russian forces.
So Moscow needs a victory – if not strategic, then at least something that can be trumpeted on Kremlin-controlled television networks and reported to Putin.
“There is a propaganda point of view – if Bakhmut [can’t be taken]then they should at least show something because Prigozhin promised Putin,” Lt. Gen. Ihor Romanenko, former deputy chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, told Al Jazeera.
The “siege” of Soledar was reported late on Tuesday and was presented as a feat achieved only by Wagner’s army.
“I would like to emphasize again that no other military unit except the Wagner fighters [took] part of the Soledar attack,” Prigozhin told the Kremlin-funded RIA Novosti news agency.
His press service then published photos allegedly taken in the salt mines under Soledar.
The Ukrainian military denied his claims.
Soledar’s claim “is not true,” spokesman Serhiy Cherevati told Al Jazeera. “Await a detailed report from the armed forces.
The press service of Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said the photos were actually taken in Volodymyrivka, a town controlled by separatists in the eastern Donetsk region.
And Prigozhin’s words about his army’s exclusive role were also contradicted by the Russian Defense Ministry, which said on Wednesday that its paratroopers had “blocked” the south and north of Soledar and were involved in fighting in the center of the city.
The Kremlin called for caution.
“Let’s not rush. Let’s wait for official announcements,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said as he described a “positive dynamic in developments” in Soledar.
Meanwhile, a separatist leader hailed Soledar’s “deal” as a step towards taking full control of Donetsk, parts of which have been held by pro-Moscow rebels since 2014.
“This is a groundbreaking moment,” Denis Pushilin told the NTV television network. “We are preparing the moment we have been waiting for, the liberation of the “Donetsk People’s Republic”.
For other pro-Kremlin Russians, Soledar is a devastating loss of Ukrainian manpower and a personal defeat for Kiev commander-in-chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi.
“Zaluzhny never counted losses anyway, but here, he outdid himself by piling thousands of soldiers to die or be captured,” Herman Kulikovsky, a prominent Russian military analyst, wrote on Telegram on Wednesday.
“In fact, Wagner’s troops not only destroyed a significant part of the Ukrainian forces that tried to hold Soledar, but also distracted part of the forces, reserves and – most importantly – the attention of the Ukrainian General Staff from other front lines”, he. has written
“If there is no Soledar, there is no Ukraine,” pro-Kremlin publicist Zakhar Prilepin said on Telegram.
The city is of course the key to capturing Bakhmut.
But what lies beneath and around him also offers an explanation for why Wagner’s Prigozhin is so desperate to control the city and monopolize its takeover in the eyes of the Kremlin.
The salt mines under Soledar contain a large military prize, large caches of firearms dating back to World War II.
The salt absorbs water and prevents rust, and Moscow began loading the mines with Nazi trophy weaponry and hundreds of thousands of Soviet small arms in the late 1950s, according to Nikolay Mitrokhin, a historian at Germany’s University of Bremen.
“That’s why the Ukrainian army deployed a battalion of special forces there in the spring of 2014 and protected mines from Donetsk. [separatist] militias gathering at the gates,” he told Al Jazeera.
The warehouse may not have been fully evacuated because its elevator cannot lift more than a dozen crates to the surface at a time, he said.
Soledar salt can be just as valuable.
The city, whose name means “a gift of salt,” once supplied up to 40 percent of the Soviet Union’s edible salt.
Before the war, it supplied about 90 percent of the salt in all of Ukraine, and hostilities around the city caused prices to rise.
The city’s surroundings are also rich in alabaster, clay valuable for pottery and coal.
And Prigozhin is known for business interests that go beyond maintaining a private army.
Its fighters are believed to have cut their teeth in Syria, helping President Bashar Assad retake much of the war-torn nation.
Then Evro Polis, a company controlled by Prigozhin, signed an agreement to develop Syrian oil and gas fields and restore energy infrastructure, according to Russian and Western media reports.
Several Wagner units moved to the war-torn Central African Republic and helped Prigozhin gain control of the lucrative “blood diamond” trade, according to the France-based research group All Eyes on Wagner.
Apart from Soledar, the southeastern region of Donbass is Ukraine’s treasure trove of mineral wealth, metallurgical and chemical plants.
“Donbass is rich in raw materials and its industrial complex can also be used,” Aleksey Kushch, a Kiev-based analyst, told Al Jazeera.
“I think a much more valuable prize is at stake – a place in Russia’s political hierarchy,” Kushch said, referring to Prigozhin’s ambitions to gain more influence within the Kremlin.