Russian mercenaries close in on Soledar, a mining town in eastern Ukraine

The Wagner Group has thrown everything at taking a town of 10,000 people in eastern Ukraine.

Clouds of black smoke billow from Soledar after shelling.
Smoke rises after shelling in Soledar, in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, on Wednesday. (Libkos/AP)

KYIV — Soledar was a relatively unremarkable city in the eastern region of Donetsk before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The name literally translates as “gift of salt,” and it is the location of the largest salt mines in Europe. Now those mines serve as defensive positions for Ukraine’s embattled military. Should the city fall to Russian forces, which consist almost exclusively of mercenaries from the infamous Wagner Group, Russia would be able to increase pressure on the Ukrainian fortress city of Bakhmut, a strategic hub that has been under a relentless Russian siege since the beginning of August.

Officially, the Kremlin has remained cagey about Russia’s progress in the city. Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov told reporters “not to rush” and to “wait for official statements.” Wagner’s financier, the serially sanctioned Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, was less tight-lipped, announcing Tuesday that his militants had taken “control of the entire territory of Soledar," going so far as to attach a photograph of himself and his soldiers, ostensibly in one of the city’s salt mines. Sharp-eyed observers on social media and the Ukrainian military's Strategic Communications Directorate noted that the image was more likely to be of Volodymyrivka, a town less than 2 miles to the east, which is and has been securely under Russian occupation.

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“The Ukrainians are still holding quite a bit of Soledar,” according to a Western volunteer in the city who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. “They pulled behind the railway tracks for defensive positions. The situation isn't great, but the losses Russians have aren’t comparable to those of Ukrainians. The Ukrainian army said they are currently fighting roughly 1 against 6.”

A Ukrainian army Grad multiple rocket launcher fires a rocket.
A Ukrainian army Grad multiple rocket launcher fires rockets at Russian positions in the frontline near Soledar on Wednesday. (Libkos/AP)

Serhiy Cherevaty, a spokesperson for Ukraine's Eastern Military Command, further disputed Russian claims that Soledar was completely under Russian control. Ukrainian soldiers published footage of themselves still occupying positions in the west of the city this morning, using commercial drones to monitor the advancing Russian forces. Igor Girkin, a former colonel in Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) who was convicted in absentia by a Dutch court of murder in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014, denied that Soledar had either been captured or encircled by Russian forces.

Girkin has been searing in his analysis of Moscow’s military failures in Ukraine and often acts as a mouthpiece for more hawkish elements in Russia. On his Telegram channel, he wrote that Ukraine’s defensive lines were unbroken and that they had retreated to a “new line of defense on the Western outskirts, relying on the salt mines.”

Those losses are hard to gauge, owing to an intense information campaign from both sides. Both sides claim the other has suffered significant casualties, while third parties, such as the British Ministry of Defense, contend that both sides have “suffered high casualties.”

Ukrainian soldiers watch smoke issuing from Soledar in the far distance.
Ukrainian soldiers watch as smoke billows during fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces in Soledar on Wednesday. (Libkos/AP)

With white snow above and white mineral below Soledar, the battle for this small town of just 10,000 inhabitants is entering its fifth month, mainly as a sideshow or preliminary to the bigger push to take the northeast city of Bakhmut, to the south. Bakhmut is currently the scene of intense trench warfare, reminiscent of World War I, except with drone footage showing the full extent of the carnage on the ground: fields of frozen corpses and incoming munitions killing more densely packed forces in real time.

For the Kremlin, taking Soledar would cut off Ukrainian resupplies to Bakhmut and help encircle it. Bakhmut affords an easier line of attack for the Russians against the larger cities of Kramatorsk, a major industrial center, and Ukraine’s administration headquarters in Donetsk; and Slovyansk, which lies close to the M03 highway connecting Kyiv to Kharkiv. “Soledar is not important in Ukrainian force generation, it’s a destroyed city,” according to Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews. “Losing it will make no difference in the Ukrainian war effort, so all that matters is what Russia lost to take it and what Ukraine lost to defend it.”

A woman picks her way across a destroyed bridge in Bakhmut, in Donetsk.
A woman crosses a destroyed bridge in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, on Jan. 6. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images)

For the Russian oligarch Prigozhin, taking Bakhmut has become an “obsession,” according to unnamed U.S. officials cited by Britain’s Guardian newspaper. For years, the catering magnate, coyly referred to as “Putin’s chef,” disclaimed any involvement in his underwriting of the Wagner Group, Russia’s most brutal expeditionary force.

Wagner fighters have deployed to Syria to prop up Bashar Assad’s regime in exchange for lucrative oil contracts. They’ve fought against a United Nations-recognized government in Libya. And they’ve fought rebel groups in both the Central African Republic and Mali, where they’ve been accused of massacring civilians.

Wagner has been subject to sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States, which characterizes it as an “Russian Ministry of Defense proxy force.” Yet unlike regular Russian army units, which deny and try to conceal their war crimes, Wagner often relishes in its wanton violence. The group’s fighters record and share videos of themselves torturing and killing victims almost as advertisements of their prowess. Wagner operatives dismembered and beheaded a Syrian army deserter with a shovel; they smashed in the skull of one of their own returned POWs with a sledgehammer.

Soldiers wearing military camouflage are visible through a window emblazoned with PMC Wagner Centre.
Visitors wearing military camouflage at the entrance of the PMC Wagner Centre in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Nov. 4, 2022. (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP)

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine foundered last spring, Prigozhin has begun to position himself both as a critic of Russia’s formal military establishment and the war’s prospective savior. He publicly revealed himself as the backer of Wagner in a string of public appearances, an allegation he had previously long denied — even to the point of filing civil litigation against those making it.

Prigozhin has persuaded thousands of hardened criminals from Russia’s prisons to sign up for a six-month tour of duty with Wagner in exchange for a pardon. He left no illusions as to the meat grinder that faced the convicts. They were “about to enter hell,” he reportedly told them, but the assignment “could be their lucky ticket” out of jail.

Of some 50,000 Wagner mercenaries, the U.S. estimates, 4,100 have been killed and another 10,000 injured on the battlefield. A 28% casualty rate would be unsustainable for any normal military organization with concern for the morale and well-being of its personnel.

“Prigozhin belongs to Putin’s inner circle,” one Western diplomat in Kyiv told Yahoo News. “He competes with older members. Things are difficult in Soledar, but taking the town does not turn the trend broadly in Russia’s favor. It just turns things in Prigozhin’s.”

A portrait of Yevgeny Prigozhin, looking unblinkingly up at the camera.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, financier of the Russian mercenary organization the Wagner Group, in 2017. (Metzel Mikhail/TASS via ZUMA Press)