War in Ukraine: Why Russia is “desperately” trying to conquer the city of Soledar

It is one of the hot spots in Ukraine at the start of 2023. In the east of the country, in the heart of the Donetsk region, the town of Soledar is one of the main objectives of the Russian forces after months of fruitless attempts at conquest. In his daily address of January 9, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned of the growing intensity of the fighting around this town pounded by Russia. “The enemy has made another desperate attempt to conquer Soledar, did he declare. The fighters [ukrainiens] resist new, even more violent assaults.

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Just like the city of Bakhmout, located about 15 km away, Soledar bears the brunt of Russian war doctrine. Large-scale bombardments destroyed buildings and infrastructure there, and “No more walls stand”, described Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday evening. Between the bombs are fighters of a special kind trying to capture the city : mercenaries of the Wagner militia, among the “best” of the private military company, according to kyiv.

Significant resources deployed

The conquest of Soledar is part of a larger operation to take control of the Donetsk region, which pro-Russian separatists have been trying to take over since 2014. The region is among the four eastern Ukrainian territories annexed by Russia last September, after referendums not recognized by kyiv and its Western allies.

As in Bakhmout, the Ukrainian armed forces have deployed significant resources in Soledar and have so far succeeded in repelling the Russian incursions. Artillery duels and street fighting nevertheless left the city in ruins. “Everything is completely destroyed. The whole territory of Soledar is covered with corpses (…) and bears the scars of the explosions. This is what madness looks like”lamented Volodymyr Zelensky in his message.

A destroyed supermarket in Soledar (Ukraine), December 6, 2022. (STEPHAN GOSS / SHUTTERSTOCK/SIPA / SIPA)

On Tuesday morning, the British Ministry of Defense claimed that Soledar was in the process of coming under Russian control. “For the past four days, Russian forces and [les miliciens de la société] Wagner have made tactical advances in the small town of Soledar (…) and probably control most of the locality”he reported on Twitter (in English). A point of situation to be taken with precaution, especially since kyiv has not yet reacted to this information.

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Kilometers of tunnel to control

For Moscow, taking control of Soledar would achieve several goals. Strengthen its positions near Bakhmout, first, which remains a prime target. This would make Russian soldiers more capable “to wrap [cette ville] by the north”details the British Ministry of Defence, but also from “disrupt the Ukrainian communication network”.

The Wagner company, which claims to be on the front line of the assaults on Soledar with the support of pro-Russian separatists, has clarified its interest in this modest town. His mercenaries are indeed eyeing the approximately 200 km of tunnels located under the town and throughout the Bakhmout region, vestiges of the exploitation of salt and gypsum mines. Of the “underground cities”to use the term used by Evgueni Prigojine, boss of Wagner, large enough to transport vehicles, weapons, ammunition and fighters out of sight – and from bombardments.

Smoke rises from the town of Soledar (Ukraine) after a bombardment, January 8, 2023. (ROMAN CHOP / AP / SIPA)

On the Ukrainian side, the defense of Soledar, a new hot spot on the front line, is of symbolic and operational interest. “Thanks to the resistance of our soldiers there (…), we gained extra time and [préservé] forces for Ukraine”, welcomed Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday evening. However, concern reigns over the fate of this city.

If Soledar were to fall into the hands of Russian forces, the consequences for Bakhmout would remain very uncertain in the near future. According to the British Ministry of Defence, the city can still count on deep and stable defensive lines”the Ukrainian forces additionally guarding the “control of [principales] supply routes”.

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