Russian mercenary group Wagner said it was fighting ‘heavy and bloody battles’ for control of the town of Soledar as part of Moscow’s months-long offensive to seize the Donetsk region , in eastern Ukraine.
Wagner’s claims appeared to be backed up by the UK Ministry of Defense (MoD), which suggested that most of Soledar, a small town about 10km north of the key town of Bakhmut, was in Russian hands after that Moscow has continued to make “tactical advances”.
The Ministry of Defense said efforts at Soledar over the past four days appeared to be aimed at encircling Bakhmut, although it added that it believed that scenario was unlikely at present.
The fighting in Soledar has reached its western outskirts as Ukrainian and Russian forces battle for control of the town’s salt mine, the tunnels of which were eyed by Wagner because they can accommodate troops and armored vehicles.
A feature of the battle near Bakhmut is that some of the fighting took place around the entrances to disused salt mine tunnels that clutter the area, with the MoD update adding: “Both sides are likely concerned that [the tunnels] could be used to infiltrate behind their lines.
Beyond the salt mine, the Russian offensive appeared aiming to take control of the road beyond and the settlements of Blahodatne and Krasna Hora to the immediate north of Bakhmut.
The Ukrainian General Staff said on Tuesday that Russian forces were trying to advance in three areas on the Donbass front: around Bakhmut, further south around Avdiivka and north around Lyman, with the aim of securing the administrative boundary of Donetsk Oblast in this area.
Highlighting the intensity of the Russian onslaught, Oleksiy Arestovych, adviser to the Ukrainian president, said that in the past 24 hours Russian forces had carried out 281 attacks along the Bakhmut axis.
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar added that Russia had launched “a large number of storm groups” into the battle. “The enemy is literally advancing on the bodies of its own soldiers and massively using artillery, rocket launchers and mortars, hitting its own troops,” she said.
The Russian forces, led by Wagner’s troops, suffered heavy losses in the fighting around Bakhmut. The mercenary group’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said earlier this week that Soledar was being stormed “exclusively” by Wagner units, saying they were fighting fiercely for the town’s administrative building.
Prigozhin said on social media on Tuesday: “In the western outskirts of Soledar there are fierce bloody battles. The Ukrainian armed forces honorably defend the territory of Soledar.
The Kremlin-linked businessman, who has been hit with Western sanctions, dismissed allegations that Ukrainian forces were deserting the front lines in Soledar en masse. “Let’s be honest with ourselves. The Ukrainian army bravely fights for Bakhmut and Soledar. Reports of their mass desertion are not true,” Prigozhin was quoted as saying by his press office on Telegram.
The capture of Bakhmut – a now devastated city which had a pre-war population of 70,000 – has become one of Moscow’s main military objectives almost a year into its mission in Ukraine. However, the intense attention given to it has baffled many observers.
With the low ridges to the west dominated by Ukrainian artillery, secondary defense lines already in place should Bakhmut fall, and substantial Ukrainian reinforcements already deployed in depth, most analysts believe Moscow will continue to struggle with his offense.
In his Monday night speech, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy again underscored the difficulty of his forces’ position in Soledar, saying troops were resisting “further, even tougher assaults”, with some speculating he could prepare public opinion for the loss of the city.
He said the town had been razed to the ground by the fighting. “Everything is completely destroyed. Thanks to the resilience of our soldiers in Soledar, we have won additional time and additional forces for Ukraine.
He did not specify what he meant by gaining time or force. Zelenskiy said Russia had gained little in its assault on Soledar at the cost of “thousands” of its soldiers, adding: “The area near Soledar is covered in corpses of invaders… This is what the madness.”
Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said the fighting in Bakhmut and Soledar was “the most intense on the entire front line”.
“There are so many people left on the battlefield…either dead or injured,” he said on YouTube. “They attack our positions in waves, but the wounded generally die on the spot, either of cold because it is very cold, or of haemorrhage. No one comes to help them or pick up the dead on the battlefield.
Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this story.