The British Ministry of Defence (MoD) has admitted that the majority of Soledar is already under Russian control, with Russia’s Wagner Group capturing Ukraine’s 120+ mile salt mine tunnels.
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The town of Soledar in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk has been taken over by pro-Moscow forces, according to the head of the private Russian military company Wagner Group. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Wagner, acknowledged that fighting was still going on in a series of statements on Tuesday and Wednesday, but claimed that the Ukrainians were encircled and that “units of the Wagner private military company have taken the entire territory of Soledar under their control.”
“The city center has been surrounded, and urban warfare is underway. The number of captives will be announced tomorrow,” Prigozhin added. “No units other than Wagner PMC fighters were involved in the storming of Soledar.” The Amsterdam-based Moscow Times and the AFP underscore that “If confirmed, the capture of Soledar would mark Russia’s biggest success in its war on Ukraine following months of retreats elsewhere.” Prigozhin’s emphasis that it was ‘only Wagner’ and no regular forces that stormed Soledar has reportedly unleashed anger and controversy inside the Russian chain of command.
In a daily briefing on Tuesday, the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) admitted that the majority of Soledar is already under Russian control.
“Part of the fighting has focused on entrances to the 200km-long disused salt mine tunnels which run underneath the district. Both sides are likely concerned that they could be used for infiltration behind their lines,” the MoD briefing described.
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Russian forces trying to encircle the city of Bakhmut, the scene of months of furious but deadlocked battle, view control of Soledar, a little town of 10,000 people (pre-war) famed for its enormous salt mines, as being especially strategically important. The distance between Soledar, an outlying town, and Bakhmut is 15 kilometres.
After what state media described as “fierce fighting,” Wagner troops were seen inside the famous salt mines. The company added that it had captured numerous Ukrainian soldiers. There are also rumours of large underground ammunition caches being found there.
The following is information from Reuters that describes the size of the mines, which are the biggest in Eastern Europe:
Soledar is also home to cavernous salt mines that are owned by state-owned enterprise Artemsil, which completely dominated the Ukrainian market until it halted production a few months after Russia invaded. The enterprise has produced more than 280 million tonnes of salt since it was founded in the late 19th century. The mines go down to a depth of 200-300 metres and have tunnels with a combined length of 300 km (186 miles), according a local tourist website.
The enterprise was once considered one of the largest in Eastern Europe and exported salt to 20 countries. A hot air balloon was once flown inside one of the mines to demonstrate their depth.
By blocking Soledar’s far northern and southern access points, Russian army airborne forces have been assisting, according to the Kremlin, but the Kremlin has not yet publicly declared outright victory.
“Let’s not rush. Let’s wait for official announcements,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said while hailing the “positive dynamic in advances” due to the “heroism of our fighters.” He stressed that “Tactical successes, of course, are very important.”
The Kremlin’s response—which, crucially, made no mention of Wagner—is being interpreted by the Western media as a slight against the private military company connected directly to Putin and an effort to retract any potential claims of a “full victory” in the midst of the intense ebb and flow of ongoing urban warfare.
“Airborne Force units have blocked Soledar from the town’s northern and southern parts. The Russian Aerospace Forces are delivering strikes at enemy strongholds. Assault groups are engaged in a battle in the town,” Peskov continued.
It’s interesting that he is enhancing the contributions of the Russian regular military at a time when there is rumoured to be conflict between Wagner and the defence ministry. Wagner appears to have been given complete autonomy over how it conducts itself, which inevitably puts the elite group in conflict with the army’s chain of command and breeds mistrust.
In the meantime, the Ukrainian government disputes Wagner’s claims of success and downplays Russian victories in and around Soledar. According to a statement by the Ukrainian military, “Soledar was, is, and will be Ukrainian.”
The statement even went so far as to say that the Wagner photos taken inside the salt mines were fake and denied that its forces had yet to surrender the town.
But on Wednesday, RT began circulating video showing the Wagner mercenaries in full uniform clearly inside large, cavernous salt mines.
The creator of the Wanger Group, Prigozhin, who is also known as “Putin’s chef,” previously discussed the strategic significance of Bakhmut’s salt mines in relation to the larger city:
“Bakhmut is the central point of the Eastern Front and a serious logistics center. And our task there is to die as little as possible, and to destroy the enemy as much as possible. Bakhmut’s feature is in its unique historical and geographical defense capabilities, which include, first, the division of the city into several parts by water barriers. Secondly, the neighborhood of Bakhmut is a complex of settlements that create a unified defense system.
Thirdly, this is a unique landscape, ravines and heights, which are natural tunnels. And the icing on the cake is the system of Soledar and Bakhmut mines, actually a network of underground cities. In which there is not only a cluster of people at a depth of 80-100 meters, but also tanks and infantry fighting vehicles move. And stockpiles of weapons have been stored since the First World War.”
Vladimir Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, acknowledged that the situation for his men in Soledar was “very difficult” on Sunday, the first day of this week.
The Ukrainians would fight to hold the town “no matter what,” he vowed, calling it “one of the bloodiest spots along the front line.” As they battle for control of this crucial part of Donetsk, reports from both sides at this point have admitted substantial deaths.