Ukraine has lost control of Soledar, although fighting is still ongoing in the war-torn Donetsk town, the Kyiv Independent reported on January 22.
The brutal battle for the small mining settlement intensified in the last month as Russian troops and Wagner Group mercenary fighters assaulted the town, losing a chunk of men in the process. Andriy, a Ukrainian unit commander, told the BBC that Ukrainians were killing 50-100 Russians per day.
Russia announced as early as January 10 that the town had fallen, but Ukrainian sources refuted this claim. Although Ukrainian troops are still fighting in the region, experts now agree that the area is under Russian control.
This is Moscow’s first victory after months of humiliation and the first under General Valeriy Gerasimov, who replaced General Sergei Surovikin as commander of the war on January 11. Russia launched constant waves of soldiers which eventually exhausted Ukraine’s defences, according to the Kyiv Independent.
Reports from the battle also suggest that Ukrainian troops are frustrated with poor communication and co-ordination due to the large number of soldiers fighting, with units from fifteen different Ukrainian brigades active in the small area. Others have expressed concerns that this will now put Russia in an advantageous position to capture Bakhmut, the Ukrainian fortress city that has withstood relentless Russian attacks since May 2022.
Nevertheless, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) stated in its January 10 report that Soledar's capture wouldn’t necessarily lead to an “immediate encirclement of Bakhmut.” Russian forces ultimately need control over critical Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) into Bakhmut, which capturing Soledar does not achieve.
In order for Russia to successfully cut Bakhmut’s GLOCs and halt Ukraine’s supplies and reinforcements, then they will need to control three highways: the E40 (M03) Sloviansk-Bakhmut highway northwest of the city; the T0513 highway Bakhmut-Siversk north of the city, and the T0504 highway running west to Kostiantynivka, the Kyiv Independent noted.
As such, the victory has been viewed by Ukraine and the West as more symbolic than strategically important, and as a huge cost to Russia in human lives and financially. In addition, it has exposed the internal fighting between the Russian Ministry of Defence and the Wagner Group, a private mercenary organisation founded by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Currently, Ukraine is still holding out firmly in Bakhmut and Russian troops are making slow and small advancements towards the city, whilst Ukrainian air and artillery bombardments are preventing Russia from the north and the south-western outskirts of Bakhmut, the BBC reported.
“Ukrainian forces are effectively pinning Russian troops, equipment and overall operational focus on Bakhmut, thus inhibiting Russia’s ability to pursue offensives elsewhere in the theatre,” the ISW stated.
“While the costs associated with Ukraine’s continued defence of Bakhmut are significant and likely include opportunity costs related to potential Ukrainian counter-offensive operations elsewhere, Ukraine would also have paid a significant price for allowing Russian troops to take Bakhmut easily,” the think-tank added.
Although not overly important strategically or operationally, a quick victory over Bakhmut would have allowed Russia to expand operations and force Ukrainian troops to hastily defend themselves from positions in “less favourable terrain”.
Fighting is unlikely to slow down in the region and Ukrainian soldiers told the BBC that a counteroffensive is planned. Nevertheless, the battle has shown that Ukraine’s weaknesses lie in command and co-ordination as well as the lack of necessary equipment.
Kyiv has repeatedly requested tanks which it claims are critical for victory. However, Germany still has not given an answer regarding its decision to send Leopard 2 main battle tanks, despite expectations it would do so before the Ramstein Conference last week.
Nevertheless, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has said that Berlin will not block Poland’s sending German-made Leopard 2s.
An estimated 500 civilians remain in Soledar. A UN convoy arrived near the town on January 20 carrying enough food, water and medical supplies for 800 people.
Around 80% of the town has been destroyed.