The Ukrainian army on Wednesday admitted it ceded the eastern town of Soledar to Russian forces two weeks after Moscow announced its capture. “After months of hard fighting (…), Ukrainian forces have thrown in the towel to ‘retreat’ to other positions,” Eastern Zone military spokesman Sergi Tcherevati told AFP, but did not specify when the withdrawal took place. “[Nuestras fuerzas] they have fulfilled their main task: not to allow the enemy to advance systematically towards Donetsk,” added Cherevati, quoted by Ukrainian state broadcaster. Donetsk is the capital of the province controlled by Russia and pro-Russian separatists since 2014. Ukrainian troops stand on the outskirts of the city .
The Russian paramilitary group Wagner announced that it had taken Soledar on January 11th. Two days later, the Russian army did. Known for its salt mines, this pre-war city of 11,000 in Donetsk province is a major victory for Moscow in its bid to conquer neighboring Bakhmut. The Battle of Bakhmut is one of the bloodiest of the war, causing a huge loss of resources and life for both armies. Russia tries to besiege Bakhmut on the northern flank, that of Soledar, and on the south.
Wagner’s mercenaries took most of Soledar in a surprise attack on January 6, coinciding with the Christmas truce announced by the Russian President. Since then, Ukrainian forces have been fighting from the western outskirts of the municipality. They still fight in the same area today, although they are already outside the city core. Kyiv has strengthened the defensive line between Soledar and the highway connecting Bakhmut with Sloviansk. The aim of the invading troops is to cut off Ukrainian military supplies along this road and encircle Bakhmut on the eastern flank.
Kyiv has so far refused to admit defeat in that city. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) Analysis Center has estimated that the advance on Soledar is not “significant”. For its part, the Russian army presents the capture of Soledar as an important step in encircling the nearby town of Bakhmut, which it has been attempting to capture since the summer and where both sides are suffering heavy casualties.
The withdrawal from Soledar was “controlled, without encirclement or massive capture of our soldiers,” assured Tcherevati, who denies any “leaks” by the Ukrainian military. Before the withdrawal, Ukrainian troops “inflicted heavy casualties” on the Russians, the military spokesman continued, stressing that the Ukrainian strategy in the area is “to wear down the enemy.”
A Russian occupation officer in eastern Ukraine said on Wednesday that his troops had advanced on the Bakhmut front, citing the capture of Soledar as a key factor. However, according to Tcherevati, “these claims do not correspond to reality”. “The fight goes on. The situation is difficult but under control,” added the spokesman.
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CNN reported yesterday that Washington is putting increasing pressure on Kyiv to end its Numantine defense of Bakhmut because, while it is causing tremendous depletion of Wagner’s forces, it is also decimating Ukrainian resources in an enclave that it is if lost no significant change in the war. Ukraine sees it differently. Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Valeri Zaluzhni reminded that with every kilometer lost, it costs more to regain it. In fact, according to military theory, defending requires three times less military might than attacking.
Oleksyi Melnik, deputy director of the Razumkov Center for Defense Studies, told EL PAÍS that taking Bakhmut for Russia is primarily a political milestone after months of battlefield setbacks. For Ukraine, Melnik said, it is a mix of political strategy and military operation because if Bakhmut were lost, the last Ukrainian bastion in Donetsk would be the urban core formed by Kramatorsk and Sloviansk. Bakhmut’s importance to Ukraine was illustrated last December when President Volodymyr Zelenskyy paid a surprise visit to the city despite the heavy shelling that accompanied his stay there.
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