Ukrainian troops patrol near Soledar, Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine, Jan. 8, 2023
Ns News Online Desk: Russia has stepped up an assault to capture the small salt mining town of Soledar near the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, Ukrainian officials said. The onslaught brings new levels of death and devastation in the grinding, months-long battle.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said Tuesday that Russian and forces of the Wagner contract group were probably now in control of most of the town, in the industrial Donbas region, after advances in the last four days.
Seizing Soledar would be advantageous to Russian forces as they fight for control of the city of Bakhmut, a few kilometers to the southwest, where troops from both sides have been taking heavy losses in some of the most intense trench warfare since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly 11 months ago. It would also give Russia a welcome battlefield victory after a series of setbacks in recent months.
“Russia’s Soledar axis is highly likely an effort to envelop Bakhmut from the north, and to disrupt Ukrainian lines of communication,” Britain said in an intelligence briefing.
Prominent journalist Yuriy Butusov, who is embedded with Ukrainian troops in Soledar, wrote for the online outlet New Voice that Russian forces had established fire control over the main Ukrainian supply route to the town.
“This is not a complete encirclement, but normal supply along the route is impossible, (and) this is critical for defense,” he said.
Speaking of the scene around Bakhmut and nearby Soledar, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Monday said: “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,” Zelenskyy said. “This is what madness looks like.”
Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said Russia has thrown “a large number of storm groups” into the battle.
“The enemy is advancing literally on the bodies of their own soldiers and is massively using artillery, rocket launchers and mortars, hitting their own troops,” she said.
Several front-line cities in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk provinces have witnessed intense fighting in recent months.
Together, the provinces make up the Donbass, a broad industrial region bordering Russia that Russian President Vladimir Putin identified as a focus from the war’s outset and where Moscow-backed separatists have fought since 2014.
Russia’s grinding eastern offensive captured almost all of Luhansk during the summer. Donetsk escaped the same fate, and the Russian military subsequently poured manpower and resources around Bakhmut.
After Ukrainian forces recaptured the southern city of Kherson last November, the battle heated up around Bakhmut.
Taking Bakhmut would disrupt Ukraine’s supply lines and open a route for Russian forces to press on toward Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, key Ukrainian strongholds in Donetsk.
Like Mariupol and other contested cities, Bakhmut has endured a long siege, spending weeks without water and power even before Moscow launched massive strikes to take out public utilities across Ukraine.
The Donetsk region’s governor, Pavlo Kyrylenko, estimated more than two months ago that 90% of Bakhmut’s prewar population of over 70,000 had fled since Moscow focused on seizing the entire Donbass.