Russia claims it has captured salt-mine town Soledar


Ukraine has denied Moscow’s claim that Russian forces have captured the salt-mining town of Soledar, a key focal point of Vladimir Putin ‘s invasion as he desperately presses for his first victory in months.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said Friday that Soledar was captured on Thursday night, after a Ukrainian official earlier admitted their forces had faced ‘high intensity’ battles for the town. Kyiv officials denied this, saying ‘severe’ fighting is on-going.

Despite Moscow focusing vast resources on capturing Soledar, analysts have said it offers little tactical benefit to the invaders for their overall goal of  taking Bakhmut.

And in an on-the-ground report, two Ukrainian soldiers claimed 50 Russians were being killed for every 100 yards they try to advance in the battle-torn region.

Meanwhile, President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed in an overnight address that defenders in the region would be armed with everything they need to keep Russian troops at bay in some of the bloodiest battles of the war.

 

Footage shows a member of Ukraine’s military looking away as a BM-21’Grad’ MLRS 122mm rocket launcher fires on the outskirts of Soledar on January 11, 2023, where some of the Ukraine war’s bloodiest fighting has taken place in recent weeks

Ukraine forces were holding out on Friday after a 'hot' night of battles in the town of Soledar, a key focal point of Vladimir Putin's forces. Pictured: Smoke rises from the battlefield on Jan. 11

Ukraine forces were holding out on Friday after a ‘hot’ night of battles in the town of Soledar, a key focal point of Vladimir Putin’s forces. Pictured: Smoke rises from the battlefield on Jan. 11

Heavy fighting has completely devastated Soledar, once a bustling salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine, as Moscow continues to throw everything it has at trying to capture the nearby and well fortified city of Bakhmut – which has previously been likened to a ‘First World War meat grinder’.

On Thursday, Ukraine claimed to have killed more than 100 Russian troops in a coordinated strike during the brutal frontline battle to control Soledar – the latest in a series of attacks that have resulted in mass Russian casualties.

There have been conflicting reports in recent days over whether Russia fully controls Soledar, with Wagner warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin on Wednesday claiming victory for his mercenaries. In response on Wednesday, Moscow and Kyiv both said pockets of resistance remained.

But on Friday, Russia claimed its forces had finally captured the fiercely contested town, in what would mark a rare victory for the Kremlin.

Kyiv denied this, saying heavy fighting was ongoing.

‘Severe fighting is going on in Soledar,’ said Sergiy Cherevaty, a spokesman for the eastern group of the Ukrainian armed forces. ‘Ukraine’s armed forces have the situation under control in difficult conditions.’

Earlier, Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar said Ukrainian forces continued to hold out in the city after a ‘hot’ night of fighting.

‘The night in Soledar was hot, battles continued,’ she 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 defence,’ she said, referring to the Donetsk region which includes Soledar. 

‘This is a difficult phase of the war, but we will win. There is no doubt.’

Pictured: A Ukrainian helicopter is seen flying over a field near Soledar. Despite Moscow focusing vast resources on capturing the small city, analysts have said it offers little tactical benefit to the invaders and their plan to push on to the nearby city of Bakhmut

Pictured: A Ukrainian helicopter is seen flying over a field near Soledar. Despite Moscow focusing vast resources on capturing the small city, analysts have said it offers little tactical benefit to the invaders and their plan to push on to the nearby city of Bakhmut

Smoke rises after shelling in Soledar, the site of heavy battles with Russian forces in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, Sunday, January 8, 2023

Smoke rises after shelling in Soledar, the site of heavy battles with Russian forces in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, Sunday, January 8, 2023

Ukrainian officials have said more than 500 civilians are trapped inside the town. 

Pavlo Kyrylenko, the governor of Donetsk, said 559 civilians remained – including 15 children. He told Ukrainian state TV that the the country could not evacuated them from the community, likely due to the dangers involved. 

Meanwhile, in a video log from Bakhmut posted to TikTok on Thursday, two Ukrainian soldiers gave an up-beat update from the front lines.

The two soldiers – a man and a woman – walked through the devastated streets of the city, as they called into question reports of Russian successes.

‘It’s too early to spread panic,’ the women – who the man called his ‘sister Witch’ – told viewers. ‘The situation is indeed difficult in Soledar right now.’

She said Putin’s forces had been unable to assault the city from the front, and are instead trying to come in from the flanks. This, she said, can be unreliable.

Despite the onslaught, she said: ‘Bakhmut is standing. As Prigozhin said, and I don’t like quoting anti-heroes, but he said that Bakhmut is 500 lines of defence and every house is a fortress. And considering how motivated out soldiers are, they will not give away a single centimetre of our land for free.’

She added: ‘To move even 100 meters deeper into the frontline, the Russians are wasting 50 of their servicemen. They flood every square meter of the land with their blood to move forward 100 meters.’

Speaking to Reuters journalists in the region from inside a bunker, another unnamed solder said the ‘situation is difficult but stable’ in the region.

‘We are holding back the enemy. Nobody leaves the positions. The positions are being held. We are fighting back.’ He added: The intensity of shelling rose by about 70 percent, but nothing changed radically.

‘Our fighters are holding the defence as they used to hold it.’

A civilian walks among heavily damaged residential buildings in Soledar, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Wednesday, December 21, 2022

A civilian walks among heavily damaged residential buildings in Soledar, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Ukrainian soldiers carrying the coffin of their fallen comrade in Bucha, Ukraine, January 12

Ukrainian soldiers carrying the coffin of their fallen comrade in Bucha, Ukraine, January 12

In its daily assessment of the invasion’s progress, the The Institute for the Study of War said it was likely that Russian forces had captured most of Soledar on January 11.

However, it added this was ‘not an operationally significant development and is unlikely to presage an imminent Russian encirclement of #Bakhmut.

‘While all available evidence indicates Ukrainian forces no longer maintain an organized defense in #Soledar, Russian information operations have overexaggerated its importance, which is at best a Russian Pyrrhic tactical victory.’

The ISW said capturing Soledar, a settlement that is smaller than 5.5 square miles and home to a pre-war population of around 10,000, ‘will not enable Russian forces to exert control over critical Ukrainian ground lines of communication into Bakhmut nor better position Russian forces to encircle the city in the short term.’

Despite this, it said, Russia has likely committed ‘significant resources to a highly attritional tactical victory which will accelerate degraded Russian forces’ likely culmination near #Bakhmut.’

As a result, Russia’s forces in the region will likely become exhausted, the ISW said, if Moscow’s armies maintain their ‘consistently high pace of assaults’. 

‘Russian forces’ degraded combat power and cumulative exhaustion will prevent these assaults from producing operationally significant results,’ it said. 

Since launching the invasion on February 24 last year, the Russian president has watched from his isolated bolthole as his forces have suffered setback after setback.

The Kremlin hoped to capture Kyiv in a matter of days, but its armies have instead been drawn into a drawn-out conflict and suffered tens of thousands of losses.

Russia was forced to retreated from around the capital Kyiv, and its forces have since been pushed further back east, towards the Russian border, while making minimal gains of its own against a dogged Ukrainian resistance.

Amid reports of low morale among Russian forces – many of whom were conscripted leading to anger at home – and a growing dissatisfaction with Putin’s military leadership among his hawkish base – the Russian president is in dire need of a win.

‘Any victory is important, especially because there hasn’t been a victory in a while,’ Russian military analyst Anatoly Khramchikhin told AFP news agency. 

However, in a video released on Telegram on Friday, mercenaries fighting for the Russian group Wagner disputed Moscow’s claim that Russian military forces had taken part in the assault of Soledar, and that it was all down to Wagner troops.

‘We are officers of the Airborne Forces, we declare that the Airborne Forces did not take part in the assault on the city of Soledar,’ the masked fighters told viewers.

‘The assault on the city of Soledar was carried out only by the forces of PMC (Private Military Company) Wagner. We were not even sent in that direction.’

The clip comes after Russia’s Defence Ministry contradicted Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin this week after he claimed to have captured the town.

In a video from Wednesday, Prigozhin stood defiantly alongside fighters in the Soledar pit and claimed his mercenaries had single-handedly taken control.

A Ukrainian missile strike killed more than 100 Russian soldiers who had grouped together during the Battle of Soledar, it was claimed Thursday. Pictured: Footage reportedly shows a group of Russian soldiers being hit by Ukrainian artillery near the town of Soledar

A Ukrainian missile strike killed more than 100 Russian soldiers who had grouped together during the Battle of Soledar, it was claimed Thursday. Pictured: Footage reportedly shows a group of Russian soldiers being hit by Ukrainian artillery near the town of Soledar

Speaking in his nightly video address to the nation, President Zelensky vowed Ukrainian forces defending Bakhmut and Soledar east will be armed with everything they need to hold back the slow Russian advance.

‘I want to emphasise that the units defending these cities will be provided with ammunition and everything necessary, on time and without interruption,’ Zelensky said in a statement on Thursday after a meeting with senior military officials.

Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister Ganna Malyar said earlier that the fight for Soledar was ‘the fiercest and heaviest’ of the war.

‘Despite the difficult situation, Ukrainian soldiers are fighting stubbornly,’ she added.

Although Russian mercenary group Wagner claimed early Wednesday that its forces had captured Soledar, the defence ministry in Moscow said fighting was ongoing and Ukraine denied any full takeover.

Military maps released by Russia’s defence ministry on Thursday did not show Soledar under the control of Moscow’s regular army.

A Russia-installed official in Donetsk, Andrey Baevsky, said there were still ‘small pockets of resistance’ from Ukraine inside the city, claiming Russian-backed troops had nearly full control.

Both sides have conceded heavy losses in the fight for Soledar and the nearby larger town of Bakhmut, which Moscow sees as being key to Russia’s aim to wrest all of Donetsk away from Ukraine.

The Kremlin on Thursday praised the ‘heroic’ work by Russian forces working to capture the eastern Donetsk region from Ukraine and on other fronts.

‘Huge work has been done in Soledar, absolutely selfless heroic actions, not only in Soledar,’ Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

‘There is still a lot of work ahead. The main work is yet to come,’ he added.

The battle for Soledar comes as Moscow on Wednesday announced a major military reshuffle, putting Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov in charge of its operations in Ukraine.

A Moscow-based defence analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described the move to AFP as ‘unprecedented’ and said it indicated ‘very serious problems’ on the battlefield.

‘This has not happened since 1941, when Marshal Georgy Zhukov was sent to the front to command.’

As part of Wednesday’s appointments, the head of Russia’s ground forces, Oleg Salyukov, was named a deputy commander of Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine.

On Thursday, he visited Moscow ally Belarus to inspect a joint regional force stationed there, Russia’s defence ministry said.

When Russia invaded in February, Belarus allowed Moscow’s troops stationed there to cross the Ukraine border via its territory.

A map shows the eastern region of Ukraine along the Russian border, and the areas currently occupied by invading Russian forces. Soledar and Bakhmut sit on the frontlines

A map shows the eastern region of Ukraine along the Russian border, and the areas currently occupied by invading Russian forces. Soledar and Bakhmut sit on the frontlines

A Russian foreign ministry official said Friday that Belarus may enter the conflict in Ukraine if Kyiv decides to ‘invade’ either country.

Russia used Belarus as a springboard to invade Ukraine in February 2022, and since October has deployed troops in Belarus for joint military drills. Both countries have since agreed to intensify their military co-operation, raising fears Moscow could use its close ally to launch a new offensive on Ukraine from the north.

In an interview with state media, foreign ministry official Aleksey Polishchuk said that Russia’s joint drills with Belarus were designed to prevent escalation, but warned that Belarus may join the Ukraine conflict if it or Russia were invaded.

‘From a legal point of view, the use of military force by the Kyiv regime or the invasion of the territory of Belarus or Russia by the armed forces of Ukraine are sufficient grounds for a collective response,’ Polishchuk told the TASS news agency.

He added, however, that it was up to the leaders of the two countries whether they would make that decision.

Zelenskiy said on Wednesday that his country must ‘be ready’ at its border with Belarus, but that he so far only saw ‘powerful statements’ coming from his neighbour. 

‘We understand that apart from powerful statements, we do not see anything powerful there, but nevertheless we must be ready both at the border and in the regions,’ he said.

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