- Catherine Armstrong
- BBC News
LONDON (Reuters) – Russia is now likely to have taken control of most of the salt-mining town of Soledar in eastern Ukraine, the British Ministry of Defense said, after a months-long battle with Ukrainian forces.
Britain said that Russian forces and the Wagner mercenary group had made progress in the past four days.
Solidar is located near Bakhmut, where Ukraine is also fighting a bloody battle.
Ukrainian President Zelensky said there was “almost no life” in Solidar, with “completely no walls”.
He also added that “all the land near Solidar is covered with the bodies of the occupiers.”
“This is what madness looks like,” he said.
Solidar – which had a population of about 100,000 before the war – may be seen primarily as a stepping stone to the capture of Bakhmut, but its strategic value is questionable.
But a US official said last week that Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner Group, wants to take control of the region’s large salt and gypsum mines.
Britain said part of the fighting had focused on the unused entrances to the 200km tunnels, and that both Russia and Ukraine were “probably concerned they could be used to infiltrate behind their lines”.
Prigozhin confirmed his interest in the mines, describing them as “lack of prestige” in relation to the strategic importance of the Bakhmut region.
He described it as an “underground city network” that can accommodate “a large group of people at a depth of 80-100 meters” and can also allow tanks and other military vehicles to move freely.
But Britain believes that Russia is “unlikely” to capture Bakhmut itself immediately because of Ukraine’s “stable defense lines”.
A senior military official from the US Department of Defense, on the other hand, said Monday that there is a “significant share” of Solidar in Russian hands.
Fighting around Bakhmut has been going on for months, and the US official described the recent battles as “brutal.”
Two British nationals were lost in the area and were last seen heading to Solidar.
Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky, in his evening address, thanked the soldiers defending Solidar, saying their resilience “gained extra time and strength for Ukraine”.
On Monday, according to a Facebook post by the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the soldiers repulsed attacks near 13 population centers – among them Solidar and Bakhmut.
Serhiy Sherevaty, a spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern forces, said in a television interview that Solidar had suffered 86 artillery strikes in the past 24 hours.
He said that Wagner’s best fighters were deployed there and that Russia was using the methods of World War I, and had suffered heavy losses.
He added, “This is fundamentally not the war of the twenty-first century.”
Despite the long and intense battle, Oleh Zhdanov, a highly respected military analyst in Ukraine, believes neither Solidar nor Pakhmut are of particular operational importance.
Zhdanov said in an interview Monday with the Ukrainian newspaper Gazeta that Russia “is trying to prove to the whole world that its army is capable of victory.”
Russia has suffered several setbacks in Ukraine since its invasion nearly a year ago — including the loss of control of the only regional capital it managed to capture.
The Institute for the Study of War, a US-based think tank, said Prigozhin “will continue to use the proven and artificial success of the Wagner Group at Solidar and Bakhmut to promote the Wagner Group as the only Russian force in Ukraine capable of securing tangible gains.”