Why is Russia so interested in capturing the city of Soledar?

(CNN) — After weeks of heavy fighting, Russia’s Defense Ministry has said its troops have taken the eastern Ukrainian town of Soledar in what would be their first significant victory in months. Ukraine disputes this claim, although a CNN crew saw Ukrainian troops in the area carrying out an apparent organized withdrawal.

Should Russia’s takeover of Soledar be confirmed, it would mark Moscow’s first victory in Donbas in months, which could offer President Vladimir Putin welcome news after a series of battlefield defeats since last summer.

The importance of Soledar in military terms is minimal. However, its capture would allow Russian forces, and especially the Wagner mercenary group, to turn their attention to nearby Bakhmut, which has been a target since the summer.

Seizing Soledar would also represent a symbolic public relations victory for the man Wagner leads, oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has frequently criticized the Russian Defense Ministry’s handling of the “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine.

This is what you need to know about Soledar.

What has been happening in Soledar?

As has often been the case with battlefield victories and defeats, there have been conflicting reports from the Russian and Ukrainian sides about the success of the Russian advance on the city.

But this Friday Russia formally announced the capture of the city of Soledar, noting that it was “important for the continuation of successful offensive operations in the Donetsk region.”

The Ministry added that “establishing control over Soledar makes it possible to cut off the supply routes for Ukrainian troops in Bakhmut” and then “blockade and drive into the ‘cauldron’ the Ukrainian troops remaining in it.”

According to the Ministry, the capture of Soledar “became possible due to the constant destruction of the enemy by assault and army aviation, missile troops and artillery of a group of Russian forces.”

“They continuously inflicted concentrated attacks on the positions of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the city, prohibiting the transfer of reserves, the supply of ammunition, as well as the enemy’s attempts to withdraw to other lines of defense,” the statement said.

Earlier this week the Wagner group, which took part in the battle, said it had taken control of the city, but the Ukrainian armed forces told CNN at the time that “Russian troops do not control Soledar.”

In a brief call with CNN, Serhii Cherevatyi, a spokesman for the Eastern Group of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, said that “fighting continues there. The Ukrainian Armed Forces and other defense forces are regrouping.”

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Ukrainian soldiers watch smoke billow during fighting in Soledar on Wednesday. Credit: Libkos/AP

The spokesman described the suggestion that Russian forces control and encircle Soledar as an “information operation.” He also accused Prigozhin of “staging” a photo of himself in a local salt mine. Prigozhin declared late Tuesday night that Wagner’s forces were in full control of the town.

Cherevatyi added that Ukrainian forces were supplying the troops with ammunition and food, describing the situation as “under control.” He added that options were being explored to “improve the tactical situation.”

An outspoken critic of the Russian Defense Ministry, Igor Girkin, has said that “the seizure of the center and much of Soledar by Wagner’s units is an undeniable tactical success.”

But Girkin, a former defense minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, who blogs about the war effort on Telegram, added: “The enemy front was NOT broken, and it was not possible to encircle the units defending the city… The fighting for the city is not over yet, the western periphery and suburbs will have to be stormed.”

Where is Soledar located and what is there?

Soledar lies at the center of the Donbas region, the vast expanse of eastern Ukraine whose capture Russia has valued above all other regions since last summer. In fact, Moscow considers it Russian territory since it claimed (illegally) that it had annexed the entire Donetsk region, including the 40% or so that lies outside Russian control.

It is a few kilometers northeast of the largest city of Bakhmut, which has become perhaps the most contested part of Ukraine’s 1,300-kilometre front line and the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the war.

For this reason, the city of Soledar, in Donetsk, has been the target of Russian forces since last May. With a pre-war population of about 10,000, it has little strategic value in itself, but it is a way point in the attrition of the Russians to the west. Moscow has fought for months to attack Bakhmut from the east, but if it captures Soledar, it could at least approach the city a different way.

The area around Soledar includes large salt mines, owned by the state-owned company Artemsil, Europe’s largest salt producer, which halted production shortly after the Russian invasion last February. The outskirts of the city are home to “extensive reserves of very pure salt that have only been exploited on an industrial scale since 1881,” according to the European Route of Industrial Heritage.

Some have speculated that the Russians—and Wagner’s leader Prigozhin—have set their sights on Soledar for its vast gypsum resources. Prigozhin has used Wagner in Africa and Syria as a mercenary force to access resources such as diamonds and oil.

But exploiting the famous Soledar salt mines would require large investments and a calmer environment than the current one. Prigozhin has said that the vast network of tunnels created by mining offers “unique and historic defences” and a “network of underground cities.”

How important is the city?

The Russian armed forces have had nothing to celebrate since the beginning of July, having to withdraw from both Kharkiv in the north and Kherson in southern Ukraine.

The taking of Soledar, despite its dilapidated state, would therefore be a rare advance. But it would be more symbolic than substantive. The Institute for the Study of Warfare (ISW) claims that control of Soledar “will not necessarily allow Russian forces to exercise control over critical Ukrainian land lines of communication to Bakhmut,” the top prize.

“Even taking at face value the most generous Russian claims, the capture of Soledar would not herald an immediate encirclement of Bakhmut,” the think tank added.

But Soledar is of enormous importance to one man: Prigozhin. Its Wagner fighters, many of them former prisoners, have suffered heavy casualties in wave after wave of ground assaults on what has become a battlefield of trenches and mud reminiscent of World War I. After months in which the Russian Defense Ministry has done nothing but back down, Prigozhin is eager to show that his men deliver.

Late on Tuesday, Prigozhin stated that “the Wagner detachments of the PMC have taken control of the entire territory of Soledar. The city center is like a hotbed, where urban fighting is taking place.” And he added: “I would like to underline that no other units participated in the assault on Soledar than the operatives of Wagner’s PMC.”

The subtext of Soledar is the battle for influence and resources between Prigozhin and his nemeses in the Defense Ministry, which intensifies as Prigozhin continues to ridicule what he describes as a corrupt and incompetent military hierarchy.

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For Russia, Soledar has more symbolic than strategic importance. Credit: Roman Chop/AP

How does Ukraine defend the region?

For now, Ukrainian forces appear to hold some positions in Soledar, although soldiers say the town center remains hotly contested.

The Ukrainian tactic could be to invite wave after wave of infantry attacks, knowing that they can inflict heavy casualties on the enemy, a tactic used successfully at Vuhledar late last year. The Ukrainian command would then choose a moment to withdraw to Bakhmut.

The Ukrainian 46th Brigade alluded to this tactic in an online post on Tuesday, saying: “The situation is very difficult, but manageable: we only abandon what we feel is not convenient to keep.” Trying to hold Soledar, like trying to hold Lisychansk, the last stronghold in the Luhansk region, last summer, becomes ill-timed as casualties mount and resupply becomes nearly impossible.

Girkin observed: “Even the fall of the entire Bakhmut-Soledar-Siversk fortified line will not cause the collapse of the front.” [ucraniano] of the AFUs. In the rear they have the main fortification of Donbas: that of Sloviansk-Kramatorsk. And we still have to reach it.”

Ukraine has defense in depth in all parts of Donetsk which it still holds and has forced the Russians to expend huge amounts of ammunition to make marginal progress.

— Seb Shukla contributed to this reporting.

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