why Moscow wants to conquer Soledar at all costs
The small town of Soledar, in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine, has been facing intense attacks by Russian troops for several days. It will fall into the hands of the Russian paramilitary group Wagner, according to a statement by the head of this organization, which said that fighting was still raging in the city center. After months of unsuccessful attempts to conquer the neighboring city of Bakhmout, Moscow wanted victory at all costs.
In eastern Ukraine, in the heart of the Donetsk region and about ten kilometers from Bakhmout, the town of Soledar has been the site of heavy fighting for several days between the Ukrainian army and mercenaries from the Wagner group, who are backed by pro-Russian separatists. . Why is this humble city, which had a population of around 10,000 before the start of the Russian offensive last February, now one of Russia’s main military targets in the war in Ukraine?
Conquest of the Donetsk region
“There was clearly strategic importance in this attack on Soledar,” said Sim Tac, a military analyst specializing in armed conflict and defense policy. “To the east, the whole of the Luhansk region is under Russian control, but in the Donetsk region, the major cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk are still under Ukrainian control.”
Therefore, the conquest of Soledar was part of a larger operation to gain control of the Donetsk region. The territory, which pro-Russian separatists have been trying to claim since 2014, is one of four eastern Ukrainian territories annexed by Russia last September, following a referendum that was not recognized by Kyiv and its Western allies.
For Moscow, taking control of Soledar had to achieve several goals. The first was to strengthen its position near Bakhmout, which was the main target.
The leader of the pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk region, Denis Pushilin, also told Russian television on Tuesday that Soledar’s control would create “good prospects” for taking control of Bakhmout, as well as for new offensives. town further north.
Taking Soledar could effectively allow Russian troops to reach Bahkmut, according to the UK Ministry of Defence. “Russia’s push against Soledar was likely aimed at encircling Bakhmout from the north and disrupting Ukrainian lines of communication,” British military intelligence said.
“Taking control of Soledar opens the gateway to Bahkmut,” military analyst Sim Tac agrees, adding that, “geographically, Bakhmout, meanwhile, opens the door to the major cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk,” further west. It is understood that his goal was Russia’s conquest of the entire Donetsk region.
Tunnel kilometer control
At the forefront of the assault on Soledar, Wagner’s mercenary company has clarified its interest in this small town: part of the battle aims to control the entrance to the old salt mine and its miles of underground galleries. Taking Soledar meant getting 200 kilometers of tunnels, covering the entire Bakhmout area, that could accommodate troops or equipment.
“This isn’t the first time this kind of strategy has been used,” recalls Sim Tac. “It can only be seen in Syria, where the use of tunnels is frequent.”
Hiding equipment and people is not the only function of these famous tunnels. The Soledar mine passes below front lines and could be used by Russian forces to “infiltrate behind enemy lines”, according to British military intelligence.
Another explanation for the Russian obsession around the city of Soledar would be linked, according to the American think-tank the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), to the personal ambitions of the founder of the Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigojine. According to ISW, but also Reuters news agency citing sources in the White House, this businessman will think about financial exploitation of Ukraine’s natural resources in the vicinity of Bakhmout.
Deposits of gypsum, clay and lime, but especially Soledar salt, whose reserves are estimated to be 2,000 years old, “can partly explain Yevgeny Prigojine’s long and costly determination to control the area” according to ISW.
Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Moscow’s mighty army has suffered a string of defeats against Ukrainian troops, who are backed by the United States and its European allies. The conflict has turned into a war of attrition in which Russia is gathering setbacks.
On the Ukrainian side, Soledar’s defense has an operational interest: buying time. “Thanks to the resistance of our soldiers there, in Soledar, we get extra time and [préservé] troops for Ukraine,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said late Monday, adding: “Everything was completely destroyed (…) The entire Soledar area was covered with the corpses of invaders and bears the scars of the explosions. This is what madness is like.”
Because Moscow seeks victory at any cost, even if it leaves a bitter taste. In Soledar, the Russians had deployed a large number of units formed from the best reserves of the Wagner group, going raid after raid to win over the threatened town.
“Russia will definitely present the battle of Soledar as a major victory,” said Sim Tac, a defense strategist. “But in fact, this kind of attack was very costly in terms of equipment destroyed and loss of fighters, as happened at the battle of Popasna”, a town in the Lugansk region, east of Soledar, which was captured in May by Russian troops, where their equipment ” totally destroyed”, said the expert.
“We’ve seen Russia have to revise its goals the way it lost Kherson and Kharkiv territories”, Sim Tac explained, referring to Russia’s withdrawal from almost all of Kharkiv in the north-east of the country in September and recapturing the city of Kherson – its only capital. region that fell to Russia – by Ukrainian troops last November. “The truth is that Moscow is engaged in a time-consuming ground war, where the cold doesn’t help, and where progress is painfully slow.”