Why is Russia so interested in capturing Soledar?

(CNN) — After weeks of fierce fighting, the Russian Ministry of Defense has told His troops have captured the eastern Ukrainian city of Soledor, their first significant victory in months. Ukraine denies the claim, though the CNN team via Ukrainian troops in the area are apparently conducting an organized retreat.

Russia’s acquisition of Soledar, if confirmed, would mark Moscow’s first victory in the Donbas, which could deliver a welcome message to President Vladimir Putin after a series of battlefield defeats since last summer.

Soledar’s importance in military terms is less. However, its capture would allow Russian forces, particularly the Wagner mercenary group, to turn their attention to nearby Bagmut, a target since the summer.

The capture of Solider would represent a symbolic public relations victory for Wagner’s leading man, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has often criticized the Russian Defense Ministry’s handling of the “special military operation” in Ukraine.

Here’s what you need to know about Soledar.

What’s going on in Solitaire?

As is often the case with battlefield victories and defeats, there are conflicting reports from the Russian and Ukrainian sides about the success of the Russian advance on the city.

But this Friday is Russia Advertising Soledar formally captured the city and noted that it was “crucial for continuing successful offensive operations in the Donetsk region”.

“Establishing control over Soledar makes it possible to cut off the supply lines for Ukrainian troops in Bakhmut” and “encircle the remaining Ukrainian troops there and drive them ‘into the cauldron,'” the ministry added.

According to the Ministry, the capture of Soledar “was possible due to the continuous destruction of the enemy by attack and military aviation, missile troops and artillery of the group of Russian forces.”

“They continued to carry out concentrated attacks on the positions of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the city, blocking the transfer of reserves, blocking the supply of ammunition, as well as attempts to return to the enemy’s other defense lines,” the statement said.

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Earlier this week, the fighting group Wagner said it had taken control of the town, but the Ukrainian armed forces told CNN at the time that “Russian troops are not in control of Solader.”

In a brief call with CNN, Serhii Cherevatyi, a spokesman for the Eastern Command of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, said, “The fighting there continues. The Ukrainian Armed Forces and other security forces are reintegrating.”

Ukrainian soldiers see a plume of smoke during fighting in Solader on Wednesday. Credit: Libkos/AP

The spokesman described the suggestion that Russian forces would control and encircle Soledar as an “information operation”. She accused Prigogine of “staging” a photograph of herself in a local salt mine. Prigozhin announced late Tuesday night that Wagner’s forces were in full control of the city.

Cherevatyi added that Ukrainian forces were supplying the troops with ammunition and food and described the situation as “under control”. He added that options for “improving the tactical situation” were being explored.

Igor Kirkin, an outspoken critic of the Russian Defense Ministry, said that “the capture of the center and most of Solidar by Wagner’s divisions was an indisputable tactical victory.”

But Kirkin, a former defense minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic who blogs about the war effort on Telegram, added: “The enemy’s front has not been broken, and the units defending the city have not been able to be surrounded. The battle for the city is not yet over, the western perimeter and suburbs must be stormed.”

Where is Soledar located and what is there?

Soledar lies at the heart of eastern Ukraine’s vast Donbass region, whose capture Russia has valued above all other regions since last summer. In fact, Moscow claims to have annexed (illegally) all of the 40% or so of Donetsk region that is outside Russian control, and considers it Russian territory.

It is a few kilometers northeast of the much larger city of Baghmut, which has become the most contested part of Ukraine’s 1,300-kilometer front and the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the war.

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As a result, the town of Solidar in Donetsk has been targeted by Russian forces since last May. With a pre-war population of about 10,000, it had little strategic value, but was a waypoint for the Russians to advance westward. Moscow had struggled for months to attack Bagmut from the east, but if it captured Soledar, it could approach the city another way.

In the area around Soledar, there are large salt mines owned by the state-owned company Artemsil, Europe’s largest salt producer, which stopped production after the Russian invasion last February. The suburbs of the city “contain extensive reserves of extremely pure salt exploited only on an industrial scale since 1881,” according to European Industrial Heritage.

Some have speculated that the Russians—and Wagner’s boss, Prigozhin—set their sights on Solidar for its vast gypsum resources. Prigogine used Wagner as a mercenary in Africa and Syria to gain access to resources such as diamonds and oil.

But exploiting the famous Soledar salt mines would require huge investments and a more peaceful environment than the present. Prigozhin said the vast network of tunnels created by the mine provides “unique and historic preservation” and “a network of underground cities.”

How important is the city?

Russian armed forces have had nothing to celebrate since early July, having to withdraw from both Kharkiv in the north and Kherson in southern Ukraine.

Taking Solitaire, despite its ruined state, would therefore be a rare breakthrough. But that would be more symbolic than substantive. The Institute for the Study of Porfare (ISW) says that Solidar’s control “does not allow Russian forces to control critical Ukrainian land links to Baku.”

“Even taking the most generous Russian claims at face value, the capture of Soledar does not necessarily mean an immediate encirclement of Pakmut,” the think tank adds.

But Soledar is of great importance to one man: Prigozhin. Its Wagner fighters, many of them ex-prisoners, have suffered heavy casualties in wave after wave of ground assaults that have become a battlefield of trenches and mud reminiscent of the First World War. After months of the Russian Defense Ministry doing nothing but backtracking, Prigozhin is eager to show what his men have to offer.

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Late Tuesday, Prigozhin said, “Wagner units of the PMC have taken control of the entire area of ​​Soledar. The city center is like a campfire, where urban fighting is taking place.” And he added: “I would like to underline that no factions other than operatives of Wagner’s PMC took part in the attack on Soledar.”

Soledar’s subtext is the battle for influence and resources between Prigozhin and his enemies in the Ministry of Defense, which intensifies as Prigozhin continues to mock what he describes as a corrupt and inefficient military hierarchy.

soledar Ukraine

For Russia, Soledar has more symbolic than strategic importance. Credit: Roman Chap/AP

How does Ukraine protect the region?

For now, Ukrainian forces appear to be holding some positions in Solader, although soldiers say there is fierce competition in the city center.

The Ukrainian tactic could be to launch wave after wave of infantry attacks, knowing that they would inflict heavy casualties on the enemy, a tactic used successfully at Wuhleder late last year. The Ukrainian command will then choose a moment to return to Bagmuth.

The Ukrainian 46th Brigade noted the tactic in an online post on Tuesday: “The situation is very difficult, but manageable: we only abandon what we consider not convenient to hold.” Trying to capture Soledar, like last summer’s attempt to capture Lisychansk, Luhansk Region’s last bastion, is running out of time as casualties mount and resupply becomes nearly impossible.

Kirkin observed: “Even the fall of the entire Pakmut-Soledar-Siversk fortress would not cause a frontal collapse.” [ucraniano] of AFUs. In the background is the main fortress of the Donbass: Sloviansk-Kramadorsk. We have yet to achieve that.”

Ukraine has deep defenses in all areas of Donetsk, which it still holds and forces the Russians to expend large amounts of ammunition to make some progress.

— Sep Shukla contributed to this report.

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