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Ukrainian soldiers watch as smoke billows during fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces in Soledar, Donetsk region on 11 January 2023 AP/PA Images

Ukraine says mining town holding out against Russian assault

The area is under heavy shelling by Russian forces using jets, mortars and rockets.

THE FATE OF a devastated salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine hung in the balance today as Ukraine said its forces were holding out against a furious Russian onslaught in one of the fiercest and bloodiest recent ground battles of the nearly 11-month war.

Russian forces using jets, mortars and rockets bombarded Soledar in what a Ukrainian military officer said was an unrelenting assault.

The officer, near Soledar, told the Associated Press the pattern is that first the Russians send one or two waves of soldiers, many from the private Russian military contractor Wagner Group, who take heavy casualties as they probe the Ukrainian defences.

When Ukrainian troops have taken casualties and are exhausted, the Russians send a fresh wave of highly-trained soldiers, paratroopers or special forces, said the Ukrainian officer, who insisted on anonymity for security reasons.

Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar denied Russian claims that Soledar had fallen, but she acknowledged heavy fighting was ongoing.

The spokesman for Ukraine’s Eastern Group of Forces, Serhiy Cherevaty, also dismissed the Russian claims.

Late yesterday, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner Group’s owner, claimed in audio reports posted on his Russian social media platform that his soldiers had seized control of Soledar, though he also said that fighting continued in a “cauldron” in the city’s centre.

AP was unable to verify that claim.

Russian forces had achieved “positive dynamics in advancing” in Soledar, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday, stopping short of declaring its capture.

“Let’s not rush, and wait for official statements,” he said.

Soledar, known for salt mining and processing, has little intrinsic value but it lies at a strategic point six miles north of the city of Bakhmut, which Russian forces want to surround.

Taking Bakhmut would disrupt Ukraine’s supply lines and open a route for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces to press toward Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, key Ukrainian strongholds in Donetsk province.

Soledar’s fall would make “holding Bakhmut much more precarious for Ukraine,” Michael Kofman, the director of Russia Studies at the CAN non-profit research organisation in Arlington, Virginia, noted on Wednesday.

The war of attrition, with heavy casualties, may make a Russian victory as deadly as a defeat.

“I don’t think the outcome at Bakhmut is that significant compared to what it costs Russia to achieve it,” Kofman said in a tweet.

The Wagner Group, which now reportedly includes a large contingent of convicts recruited in Russian prisons, has spearheaded the attack on Soledar and Bakhmut.

Western intelligence has estimated that the Wagner Group constitutes up to a quarter of all Russian combatants in Ukraine.

Today, Russia’s Defence Ministry announced what appeared to be a demotion for the head of Russian forces in Ukraine after only three months in the job.

The chief of the military’s General Staff, Gen Valery Gerasimov, was named to that role, replacing Gen Sergei Surovikin, who was named his deputy, along with two other generals.

The Defense Ministry said the leadership changes were prompted by expanded military tasks and the need for “closer interaction between branches of the military as well as increasing the quality of supplies and the efficiency of directing groups of forces”.

Russian troops have struggled to gain control over Donetsk, Luhansk and two other Ukrainian provinces the Kremlin illegally annexed in September. Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. After Ukrainian forces recaptured the southern city of Kherson in November, the battle heated up around Bakhmut.

Putin identified the Donbas region as a focus from the war’s outset and Moscow-backed separatists have fought there since 2014.

Russia captured almost all of Luhansk during the summer. Donetsk escaped the same fate, and the Russian military subsequently poured manpower and resources around Bakhmut.

The Institute for the Study of War said Russian forces were up against “concerted Ukrainian resistance” around Bakhmut.

“The reality of block-by-block control of terrain in Soledar is obfuscated 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 think tank said.

An exceptional feature of the fighting near Bakhmut is that some of it has taken place around entrances to disused salt mine tunnels, which run for some 120 miles, according to Western intelligence reports.

On a different front, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy today 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 drills in the country, which has a roughly 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 risen in recent months about Moscow potentially pressuring Belarus into opening up a new front in Ukraine’s west, possibly to target supply routes for Western weapons and other overseas aid that have helped Kyiv’s forces sustain a defence and to launch a counteroffensive.

Zelenskyy said there were no immediate worries about Minsk joining the war, but added: “We must be ready,” according to the statement.

Press Association
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