Russian troops have stepped up an assault on the small salt mining town of Soledar in eastern Ukraine, forcing Ukrainian troops to repel waves of attacks led by mercenary forces, officials in Kyiv said.
Britain said on Tuesday that Russian and forces of the Wagner contract group were probably now in control of most of the town, in the industrial Donbas region, after advances in the last four days.
Seizing Soledar would be advantageous to Russian forces as they fight for control of the city of Bakhmut, a few kilometres (miles) to the southwest, where troops from both sides have been taking heavy losses in some of the most intense trench warfare since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly 11 months ago.
It would also give Russia a welcome battlefield victory after a series of setbacks in recent months.
“Russia’s Soledar axis is highly likely an effort to envelop Bakhmut from the north, and to disrupt Ukrainian lines of communication,” Britain’s Defence Ministry said in an intelligence briefly.
Serhiy Cherevaty, spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern forces, told Ukrainian television Russian forces were deploying their best Wagner fighters at Soledar, which had been struck 86 times by artillery over the past 24 hours.
He said Russia was using World War One-style tactics, throwing large numbers of men into battle and absorbing heavy losses.
“This is basically not a 21st-century war,” he said.
Prominent journalist Yuriy Butusov, who is embedded with Ukrainian troops in Soledar, wrote for the online outlet New Voice that Russian forces had established fire control over the main Ukrainian supply route to the town.
“This is not a complete encirclement, but normal supply along the route is impossible, (and) this is critical for defence,” he said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address on Monday that Bakhmut and Soledar were holding on despite widespread destruction.
He cited new and fiercer attacks in Soledar, where he said no walls have been left standing and the land was covered with Russian corpses.
Bakhmut is located on a strategic supply line between the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which make up the Donbas. Gaining control of it could give Russia a stepping stone to advance on two bigger cities – Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.
Russia’s defence ministry did not mention either Soledar or Bakhmut in a media briefing on Monday.
WAVES OF ATTACKS
Wagner was founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Drawing some recruits from Russia’s prisons and known for uncompromising violence, it is active in conflicts in Africa and has taken a prominent role in Russia’s war effort in Ukraine.
Prigozhin has been trying to capture Bakhmut and Soledar for months at the cost of many lives on both sides.
He said on Saturday its significance lay in a network of cavernous mining tunnels below the ground, which can hold troops or tanks.
Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said fighting in Bahkmut and Soledar was “the most intense on the entire frontline”.
“So many remain on the battlefield … either dead or wounded,” he said on YouTube. “They attack our positions in waves, but the wounded as a rule die where they lie, either from exposure as it is very cold or from blood loss.”
Reuters could not verify the battlefield reports.
In an evacuee centre in Kramatorsk, Olha, 60, said she had fled Soledar after moving from apartment to apartment as each was destroyed in tank battles.
“There isn’t one house left intact. Apartments were burning, breaking in half,” said Olha, who gave only her first name.
APPEAL FOR WEAPONS
Ukrainian officials, led by the commander in chief General Valery Zaluzhniy, have warned that Russia is preparing fresh troops for a new offensive on Ukraine, possibly on the capital Kyiv.
Zelenskiy has repeatedly urged Ukraine’s Western supporters to supply more sophisticated weapons to help it repel attacks and eventually expel Russian troops.
“The world knows that every day of Russian presence on Ukrainian soil means deaths, injuries, pain and suffering of people,” he wrote in a message on Telegram on Tuesday morning, under pictures of Ukrainian soldiers.
“Ukraine must get everything it needs to expel terrorists from our land and to reliably protect our people from any Russian escalation plans.”
France, Germany and the United States all pledged last week to send armoured fighting vehicles. Britain is considering supplying Ukraine with tanks for the first time, Sky News reported, citing a Western source. Britain’s Defence Ministry did not comment.
Russia launched what it calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine on Feb. 24, citing threats to its own security and a need to protect Russian speakers. Ukraine and its allies accuse Moscow of an unprovoked war to seize territory.
Moscow has also cast the conflict as a fight between Russia and hostile Western nations.
“The events in Ukraine are not a clash between Moscow and Kyiv – this is a military confrontation between Russia and NATO, and above all the United States and Britain,” Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev said on Tuesday.
“The Westerners’ plans are to continue to pull Russia apart, and eventually just erase it from the political map of the world,” Patrushev, one of Putin’s closest allies, told the Argumenti i Fakti newspaper in an interview.