War in Ukraine: why Moscow wants to conquer Soledar at all costs

The small town of Soledar, in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine, has been facing intense attacks by Russian forces for several days. It would have fallen into the hands of the Russian paramilitary group Wagner, according to a statement by the head of this organization, which specifies that fighting is still raging in the city center. After months of unsuccessful attempts to conquer the neighboring city of Bakhmout, Moscow wants victory at all costs.

In eastern Ukraine, in the heart of the Donetsk region and about ten kilometers from Bakhmout, the town of Soledar has for several days been the scene of fierce fighting between the Ukrainian army and the mercenaries of the group Wagner, supported by pro-Russian separatists. Why is this modest town, which had a population of around 10,000 before the start of the Russian offensive last February, currently one of Russia’s main military targets in the war in ukraine?

Conquest of the Donetsk region

“There is obviously a strategic importance in this assault on Soledar”, decrypts Sim Tac, military analyst specializing in armed conflict and defense policy. “To the east, the entire Luhansk region is under Russian control, but in the Donetsk region, the major cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk are still Ukrainian.”

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

For Moscow, taking control of Soledar should achieve several objectives. The first is to reinforce its positions near Bakhmout, which is a prime target.

The leader of the pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk region, Denis Pushilin, also told Russian television on Tuesday that control of Soledar would create “good prospects” for taking control of Bakhmout, as well as for a new assault. on Siversk, a town further north.

Taking Soledar could effectively allow Russian troops to reach Bahkmut, according to the British Ministry of Defence. “Russia’s push towards Soledar is likely aimed at encircling Bakhmout from the north and disrupting Ukrainian lines of communication,” British military intelligence said.

“Taking control of Soledar opens the gates to Bahkmut,” agrees military analyst Sim Tac, adding that, “geographically, Bakhmout, meanwhile, opens the door to the larger cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk,” further away. the west. The goal being, it will be understood, the Russian conquest of the entire region of Donetsk.

Control of kilometers of tunnels

On the front lines of the assaults on Soledar, the Wagner mercenary company clarified his interest in this small town: part of the fighting aims to control the entrance to an old salt mine and its kilometers of underground galleries. Taking Soledar means getting your hands on some 200 kilometers of tunnels, spanning the entire Bakhmout region, that could house troops or equipment.

“It’s not the first time that this kind of strategy has been used,” recalls Sim Tac. “There is only to see in Syria, where the use of tunnels was frequently employed”.

Hiding equipment and men would not be the only function of these famous tunnels. Soledar mines pass under the front line and could be used by Russian troops to “infiltrate behind enemy lines”, according to British military intelligence.

Another explanation for the Russian obsession around the town of Soledar would be linked, according to the American think tank “Institute for the Study of War” (ISW)to the personal ambitions of the founder of the mercenary group Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin. According to the ISW, but also the Reuters news agency quoting a source at the White House, this businessman would have in mind the financial exploitation of Ukrainian natural resources around Bakhmout.

The deposits of gypsum, clay and chalk but especially of salt of Soledar, whose reserves are estimated at 2,000 years, could “partly explain the long and costly determination of Yevgeny Prigojine to establish control of the area ” according to the ISW.

communication war

Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Moscow’s mighty army has suffered a series of defeats against Ukrainian forces, backed by the United States and its European allies. The conflict has turned into a war of attrition in which Russia is accumulating setbacks.

On the Ukrainian side, the defense of Soledar has an operational interest: to gain time. “Thanks to the resistance of our soldiers there, in Soledar, we gained extra time and [préservé] forces for Ukraine,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Monday night, adding: “Everything is completely destroyed (…) The entire territory of Soledar is covered with the corpses of the invaders and bears the scars of the explosions. This is what madness looks like.”

Because Moscow is looking for a victory whatever the cost, even if it leaves a bitter aftertaste. In Soledar, Russia has deployed a large number of units formed from the best reserves of the Wagner group, conducting assault after assault to win the city at risk.

“The Russians will obviously present the battle of Soledar as a great victory,” said Sim Tac, an expert in defense strategies. “But in fact, this kind of offensive is very costly in terms of destroyed equipment and loss of fighters, as was the case for the battle of Popasna”, a city in the Lugansk region, east of Soledar, taken in May by Russian forces, where their equipment was “totally destroyed”, says the expert.

“We have already seen Russia having to revise its objectives like when they lost the regions of Kherson and Kharkiv”, explains Sim Tac, referring to the Russian withdrawal of almost all of the Kharkiv region in the northeast of the country in september and the recapture of the city of Kherson – the only regional capital to fall into Russian hands – by Ukrainian forces last November. “The truth is that Moscow is embroiled in a ground war that takes time, where the cold does not help, and in which progress is very slow.”

War in Ukraine: why Moscow wants to conquer Soledar at all costs