Bafflement after battle Russia claims to have captured the mining city of Soledar. Meduza explains what we know about what’s really happening and what it means for the war.

On January 11, the Wagner Group occupied a significant portion of Soledar, a small city in central Donbas. The city is likely to be captured in its entirety in the near future. It’s not yet clear how the battle will end for the Ukrainian military — whether all battalions were able to make an organized retreat, or whether some were surrounded. It’s also unclear what it means for the Russian military, or whether it will now succeed in capturing a swath of territory stretching from Horlivka through Bakhmut and all the way to Siversk. Meduza explains what we know, what we don’t, and what it means for the course of the war.

Has the Russian military captured Soledar — or just surrounded it?

The situation in the city center and around Soledar was not entirely clear by evening on January 11. Although the Wagner Group head Evgeny Prigozhin had announced that the city was “fully under the control” of his mercenaries, Ukrainian troops were in the city. They were evidently surrounded and had been told to surrender. The Ukrainian military says little about the situation. Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukrainian media, and bloggers deny that Soledar has been surrounded, and insist that resistance continues.

Videos shot in and around Soledar suggest that, at the very least, the Ukrainian side’s position has deteriorated drastically:

  • Wagner mercenaries posed in the city square and the courtyard adjacent to the city hall, with the bodies of dead Ukrainian soldiers visible in the background.
  • On January 9-10, retreating Ukrainian troops were seen on the southwestern outskirts of the city, and on January 11, Ukrainian drone footage showed a Wagner detachment in the same area.

Prigozhin has also shot a video in an underground mine resembling Soledar’s salt mines, although similar mines exist in other cities in the Donbas.

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It’s impossible to say with certainty that there are hundreds of surrounded Ukrainian soldiers in the city. There is no confirmation that Russian troops control the northwest part of the city, or the high point that dominates the area, Yurchina Mountain. The road that leads there may still be open. But there is no evidence of any Ukrainian soldiers still remaining in Soledar.

The Ukrainian military has clearly mounted a defense in Soledar’s northern outskirts, in the villages of Blahodatne and Krasnopolivka, and at the Sol train station. Some Ukrainian troops have, in all likelihood, retreated to Siversk, and others to Bakhmut.

The mercenary assault on Soledar Russia’s Wagner Group gains control over most of the mining town and threatens Ukrainian positions near Bakhmut, but the offensive’s price has been high

The mercenary assault on Soledar Russia’s Wagner Group gains control over most of the mining town and threatens Ukrainian positions near Bakhmut, but the offensive’s price has been high

What is Soledar’s significance for the general situation at the front?

Soledar, the first city captured by Russia since early July 2022, is more than just a military and political success for the Kremlin. It also opens up the opportunity for Russia to achieve the larger goal of its winter operation, occupying the cities of Bakhmut, around 10 kilometers (6 miles) south of Soledar, and Siversk, around 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the north.

Still, the Russian side is far from realizing that goal. If Russia cuts off the road from Bakhmut to Siversk, where some Ukrainian troops retreated from Soledar, Ukrainian troops will be divided, but this does not spell immediate catastrophe for Ukraine, since both Bakhmut and Siversk are reliably connected by other roads to Ukraine’s main rear base in Kramatorsk.

In order to envelop Bakhmut, the Russian side would need to capture a highway junction in Krasna Hora, to the north of the city, and a fortified area in the village of Klishchiivka, to the south.

The Russian military is building up forces for this purpose: regular units are now operating in place of the Wagner Group detachments that just stormed Klishchiivka and have advanced towards Krasna Hora.

Capturing Bakhmut – which is possible, although far from certain – would be the end of that operation. The next Ukrainian defensive line has been equipped on the hills near the city of Chasiv Yar, west of Bakhmut.

How the sides view their losses in the operation

Russian military leadership probably does not care much about the pace of the offensive. What’s more important to them is to force their own combat terms on the Ukrainian army, in a location advantageous to the Russian side. To put it bluntly, the Ukrainian military, which does not want to leave Donbas cities, has been forced to use the reserves and resources that it might otherwise have saved for a major offensive in the spring. What’s worse, it had to do it in an unfavorable setting. Some Ukrainian commanders have admitted, anonymously, that they consider this defensive operation a mistake, and that losing so many lives in Soledar was not the best decision. This precipitated a retreat to the next defensive line (which is also more topographically advantageous) to conserve resources for a future offensive.

After mobilization in Russia, material resources, specifically ammunition, have temporarily become more of a pressing issue than personnel shortages. Citing Ukrainian servicemen, CNN has claimed that the Russian army has already been forced to dramatically reduce its consumption of ammunition. If this has not yet stopped the Wagner Group from waging an offensive in Bakhmut and Soledar, it’s because they’ve decided to “spend” people – instead of artillery shells. It’s unlikely, however, that Russian forces — particularly the regular army, which is more sensitive to losses than the Wagner Group — will always be able to compensate for lack of ammunition by expending soldiers.

The true war of attrition begins Meduza sums up what happened on the battlefield in 2022 — and what it portends for the year ahead

The true war of attrition begins Meduza sums up what happened on the battlefield in 2022 — and what it portends for the year ahead

Analysis by Medusa

Translation by Emily Laskin


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