KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The fate of a devastated salt mining town in eastern Ukraine hung in the balance Wednesday in one of the bloodiest battles of the Russian invasion, as the tireless resistance of Ukraine and other challenges prompted Moscow to shake up its military leadership again.
Russian forces used jets, mortars and rockets to bombard Soledar in a relentless assault.
Soledar’s downfall, while unlikely to be a turning point in the nearly 11-month war, would be a price for a Kremlin hungry for good news on the battlefield in recent months. It would also offer Russian troops a springboard to conquer other areas. of the province of Donetsk which remain under Ukrainian control, such as the neighboring strategic town of Bakhmut.
Donetsk and the neighboring province of Luhansk, which together form the Donbass region bordering Russia, were Moscow’s main declared territorial targets during the invasion of Ukraine, but the fighting mostly took place in a dead end.
In apparent acknowledgment of battlefield setbacks, the Russian Defense Ministry announced the demotion of the head of Russian forces in Ukraine after just three months on the job. Russia’s top military officer – Chief of the General Staff of the Army, General Valery Gerasimov – was appointed to replace General Sergei Surovikin, who was demoted to the rank of deputy.
During his short period supervising troops in Ukraine, Surovikin was credited with increasing coordination, tightening control, and launching a campaign to knock out Ukrainian utilities as a pressure tactic. But he also announced a humiliating withdrawal in November from Kherson, the only regional center that Russian forces had captured just weeks after the Kremlin illegally annexed the region. His demotion signaled that Russian President Vladimir Putin was not entirely satisfied with his performance.
Gerasimov, meanwhile, was seen as the main architect of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and critics blamed him for Moscow’s military setbacks.
The British Ministry of Defense said Gerasimov’s appointment to command was “an indicator of the growing gravity of the situation facing Russia and a clear recognition that the campaign falls short of Russia’s strategic objectives”. He added in a tweet that Russian ultra-nationalists and military bloggers critical of Gerasimov would likely greet the news with “extreme displeasure”.
The official explanation of the Russian Ministry of Defense was that the expansion of military tasks and the need “for closer interaction between the branches of the military as well as the increase in the quality of supplies and the efficiency of the leadership of the groups of forces” prompted changes in leadership.
On the battlefield, a Ukrainian officer, near Soledar, told The Associated Press that the Russians first send in one or two waves of soldiers, many of them from private Russian military contractor Wagner Group, who suffer heavy casualties probing the Ukrainian defences. . When Ukrainian troops suffer casualties and are exhausted, the Russians send in a new wave of highly trained soldiers, paratroopers or special forces, said the Ukrainian officer, who insisted on anonymity for security reasons.
Ukrainian officials denied Russian claims that Soledar had fallen, but the Wagner Group owner repeated the claim of a breakthrough on Wednesday night.
“Once again I want to confirm the full liberation and clearing of the territory of Soledar from Ukrainian army units,” Yevgeny Prigozhin wrote on his Russian social media platform. “The civilians have been withdrawn. Ukrainian units that did not want to surrender were destroyed. He claimed that around 500 people had been killed and that “the whole city is littered with the corpses of Ukrainian soldiers”.
Ukraine’s military said Wednesday night that Russian forces had suffered “enormous losses” in the Soledar fighting.
The AP was unable to independently verify the claims of either party.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refrained from declaring the capture of the municipality, telling reporters that Russian forces had achieved “positive momentum in advancing” at Soledar. “Let’s not rush and wait for official statements,” he added.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy weighed in in his nightly video address on Wednesday: “Now the terrorist state and its propagandists are trying to claim that part of our city of Soledar – a city that was almost completely destroyed by the occupiers – is allegedly some sort of Russia feat. He said Ukrainian forces in the area were resisting the Russians.
Soledar, known for mining and processing salt, has little intrinsic value, but it is strategically located 10 kilometers (six miles) north of the town of Bakhmut, which Russian forces want to surround.
Taking Bakhmut would disrupt Ukraine’s supply lines and open a route for the Russians to move towards Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, the Ukrainian strongholds in Donetsk Province.
Soledar’s downfall would make “holding Bakhmut much more precarious for Ukraine,” noted Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at the nonprofit research group CAN in Arlington, Virginia.
Attrition warfare, with heavy casualties, can make a Russian victory as deadly as a defeat.
“I don’t think the result in Bakhmut is that important compared to what it costs Russia to achieve it,” Kofman said in a tweet.
The Wagner group, which would now include a large contingent of convicts recruited from Russian prisons and constitute up to a quarter of all Russian fighters in Ukraine, spearheaded the attack on Soledar and Bakhmut.
Victory at Soledar and Bakhmut after months of difficulties on the Russian front would help Prigozhin, who has criticized Gerasimov, increase his influence in what has emerged as a kind of rivalry with Russian military leaders.
Russian troops struggled to take control of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and another Ukrainian province illegally annexed by the Kremlin in September, after incorporating the Crimean peninsula in 2014. When Russian forces withdrew from Kherson, the battle heated up around Bakhmut.
Putin identified the Donbass region as a priority from the start of the war, and Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting there since 2014. Russia captured almost all of Luhansk over the summer. Donetsk escaped the same fate and the Russian military subsequently deployed manpower and resources around Bakhmut.
The Institute for the Study of War said Russian forces faced “concerted Ukrainian resistance” around Bakhmut.
“The reality of block-by-block control of terrain in Soledar is obscured by the dynamic nature of urban combat…and Russian forces have largely struggled to achieve significant tactical gains in the Soledar region for months,” said the thinker based in Washington. said the tank.
An outstanding feature of the fighting near Bakhmut is that some took place around the entrances to disused salt mine tunnels, which stretch for some 200 kilometers (120 miles), according to Western intelligence reports.
In other developments:
– Putin claimed on Wednesday that Russia had successfully resisted Western pressure, especially sanctions, over its invasion of Ukraine and vowed his country had enough resources to bolster its military while continuing its social programs. “Nothing that our enemies expected happened,” Putin said in a video call with his cabinet. “We will strengthen our defense capability and will undoubtedly solve all the problems related to the supply of military units involved in the special military operation,” he said, using the Kremlin’s euphemism for war. Reports have circulated that Russia is struggling to produce enough weapons, equipment and clothing for its troops fighting in Ukraine.
– Polish President Andrzej Duda said his country was ready to send German-made Leopard tanks to help Ukraine as part of a larger international coalition. Duda spoke after his meeting in Lviv with Zelenskyy, who said Ukraine needed tanks to win the war. In Britain, another staunch ally of Ukraine, Prime Minister’s spokesman Rishi Sunak said no final decision had been made on whether to send tanks.
— Russian and Ukrainian human rights commissioners have agreed to exchange more than 40 military prisoners, Turkish state agency Anadolu reported. The two warring sides have exchanged prisoners on several occasions, in one of the few areas of cooperation. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said his country had offered to establish a corridor to bring the wounded to Turkey. “It’s our humanitarian duty, our duty of conscience,” he said.
Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland, and Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia, contributed to this story.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine