Russian soldiers and the Wagner group's mercenary fighters were engaged in bitter fighting for the mining town of Soledar, officials in Kyiv and its Western allies said Tuesday, control of which could finally hand them a breakthrough in their bid to seize the key nearby city of Bakhmut.
Moscow’s troops had escalated their assault on defensive positions around Bakhmut, the officials said, after months of fierce fighting that has left the once-thriving city in the industrial Donbas region largely ruined.
Control of Bakhmut would likely be seen as a significant, if costly, victory for the Kremlin, which has suffered repeated setbacks on the battlefield and rare signs of disquiet at home as the war approaches the one-year mark. It would also boost the standing of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner group and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin who has emerged as a public face of the war behind his vocal criticism of Moscow's established military leaders.
Russia has struggled to advance in the area for months, with both sides suffering huge losses as it became a focal point of the conflict after Ukraine's successful counteroffensive in the south. But the Kremlin's forces appeared to have made progress in Soledar in recent days.
Russian soldiers and fighters from the Wagner mercenary group were likely in control of most of Soledar, 6 miles northeast of Bakhmut, the British Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence briefing on the war Tuesday. The move to take Soledar was, it said, “highly likely an effort to envelop Bakhmut from the north, and to disrupt Ukrainian lines of communication.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked the soldiers who were resisting Russian advances in a statement late Monday.
“It is extremely difficult — there are almost no whole walls left," he said. "Due to the resilience of our warriors there, in Soledar, we have gained additional time and additional power for Ukraine.”
Zelenskyy said that in the area around Soledar and Bakhmut, “everything is completely destroyed. There is almost no life left.”
“The whole land near Soledar is covered with the corpses of the occupiers and scars from the strikes,” he added. “This is what madness looks like.”
On some days. both sides have exchanged several thousand artillery rounds in the area, in trench fighting described as “savage” and compared to the carnage of World War I by a U.S. military official in a background briefing to journalists Monday.
Ukraine’s military said Monday that Russia made a “desperate attempt to storm the city of Soledar from different directions and threw the most professional units of the Wagnerites into battle.”
Serhiy Cherevaty, a spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern forces, told Ukrainian TV that Soledar was hit by 86 shells Tuesday alone.
“There are fierce battles now, and the enemy has concentrated there the best units of the organized criminal group ‘Wagner,’ which are supported by the regular armed forces of the Russian Federation,” he said.
The Moscow-backed leader of the occupied areas of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, told Russian state TV on Tuesday that Russian forces were “very close” to taking Soledar but that the gains were coming at a high price. Taking the town would create “good prospects” to then take Bakhmut, he said.
Bakhmut has become a symbol of Ukraine’s defiance against Russian aggression, with Zelenskyy mentioning the struggle to hold the city in his address to the U.S. Congress in December and giving then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a Ukrainian flag signed by soldiers from his visit to the front lines there a day earlier.
The area sits in the Donetsk province, one of four that Putin illegally claimed to have annexed last year, and it is notable for its vast disused mine tunnels.
Some of the fighting has focused on entrances to the 120-mile-long tunnels, the British ministry said, with both sides "likely concerned that they could be used for infiltration behind their lines."
Prigozhin has spoken of the strategic importance of the area’s mines. It not only has the ability to hold "a big group of people at a depth of 80-100 meters [about 260-330 feet], but tanks and infantry fighting vehicles can also move about,” he said Saturday.
Footage emerged in September of him apparently recruiting prisoners to fight for Wagner, addressing a large crowd outside a regional Russian prison. Prigozhin is known by the nickname “Putin’s chef” for his catering business’s long association with the Kremlin.
The Institute for the Study of War, a think tank in Washington, said in an analysis Monday that he will seek to use real and fabricated successes in Soledar and Bakhmut “to promote the Wagner Group as the only Russian force in Ukraine capable of securing tangible gains.”
Analysts have also argued that the fight for the Donbas region has been so severe and resource-intensive that it has hurt Russia’s overall goals in Ukraine.
“The battle for the Donbas bled the Russian military of manpower, at a time when it lacked the forces to both hold captured territory and continue offensives,” the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a think tank in Philadelphia, said in a paper in December.