Fighting is still raging in Soledar, a salt mine town in eastern Ukraine, despite Russian claims that it has gained control of the region.
Should Russian troops indeed capture the town, it would mark Moscow’s first gain in the Donbas for months – potentially offering President Vladimir Putin some welcome news after a string of defeats on the battlefield since last summer.
The significance of Soledar in military terms is minimal. However, its capture would allow Russian forces, and especially the Wagner mercenary group, to turn their focus on nearby Bakhmut, which has been a target since the summer.
The town of Soledar in Donetsk has been a target for Russian forces since last May. With a pre-war population of about 10,000, it has little strategic value in itself, but is a waypoint in the Russians’ attritional slog westwards. Moscow has struggled for months to attack Bakhmut from the east, but were it to capture Soledar, Moscow would at least be able to approach the city from a different path.
The Russian armed forces have had nothing to celebrate since the beginning of July, and have had to retreat in both Kharkiv to the north and Kherson in southern Ukraine.
The capture of Soledar, despite its now-ruined state, would therefore be rare progress. But it would be symbolic rather than substantive. The Institute for the Study of War said control of Soledar “will not necessarily allow Russian forces to exert control over critical Ukrainian ground lines of communication into Bakhmut,” the larger prize.
“Even taking the most generous Russian claims at face value, the capture of Soledar would not portend an immediate encirclement of Bakhmut,” the think tank added.
But Soledar is of outsize significance to one man: oligarch and Wagner mercenary group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin. His Wagner fighters, many of them former prison inmates, have taken heavy casualties with one wave after another of ground assaults across what has become a battlefield of trenches and mud reminiscent of World War I. After months in which the Russian Ministry of Defense has delivered nothing but retreat, Prigozhin is keen to show that his men deliver.
Read more about Soledar here.