By ANDREW MELDRUM
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The fate of a devastated salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine hung in the balance Wednesday as Ukraine said its forces were holding out against a furious Russian onslaught in what has become one of the fiercest and most costly battles in the almost 11-month war.
Though unlikely to provide a turning point in the war, Soledar’s fall to Russian forces after months of Ukrainian defense would be a prize for the Kremlin, which has been starved of good news from the battlefield amid Ukraine’s counteroffensive in recent months. It would also offer Russian troops a strategic springboard for their efforts to encircle the nearby city of Bakhmut.
The spokesman for Ukraine’s Eastern Group of Forces, Serhiy Cherevaty, said Wednesday that Russian claims it had conquered Soledar were “untrue,” Ukrainian news outlet Suspilne reported.
Cherevaty offered no further details, saying only that Ukraine’s General Staff would provide more information later.
The General Staff in its Wednesday morning update only listed Soledar among cities and towns that continue to be shelled by Russian forces.
Late Tuesday, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group — a Russian private military contractor — claimed in audio reports posted on his Russian social media platform that his forces had seized control of Soledar, though he also said that battles were continuing in a “cauldron” in the city’s center.
The Associated Press was unable to verify that claim.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that Russian forces had “positive dynamics in advancing” in Soledar, but he stopped short of declaring its capture when asked about the claims that it has come under Russian control.
“Let’s not rush and wait for official statements,” he said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said this week that “everything is completely destroyed” in the area due to relentless shelling and weeks of close, house-to-house combat.
“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.”
Soledar, known for salt mining and processing, lies in the Donetsk region and has little intrinsic value. But it lies at a strategic point 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of Bakhmut, which Russian forces are aiming to surround.
Taking Bakhmut would disrupt Ukraine’s supply lines and open a route for Russian forces to press toward Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, key Ukrainian strongholds in Donetsk.
Soledar’s fall would make “holding Bakhmut much more precarious for Ukraine,” Michael Kofman, the director of Russia Studies at the CAN nonprofit research organization in Arlington, Virginia, noted Wednesday.
The costly war of attrition, with expected heavy casualties, may make Russia’s victory as costly as a defeat, however.
“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.
A success in Soledar and Bakhmut would help Prigozhin, who has openly criticized Russia’s military leadership, to increase his clout at the Kremlin.
Russia illegally annexed Donetsk and three other Ukrainian provinces in September, but its troops have struggled to advance. After Ukrainian forces recaptured the southern city of Kherson in November, the battle heated up around Bakhmut.
The Institute for the Study of War says Russian forces are 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 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 200 kilometers (120 miles), according to western intelligence reports.
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 Donbas, a broad industrial region bordering Russia that 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.
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