The dramatic battle for Soledar, part of the Battle of Bakhmut, is over — though Ukraine’s leaders are still reluctant to acknowledge the loss.
As a result of a local offensive operation in January, Russian troops managed to gnaw through Ukrainian defenses and, after fierce urban fighting, took the remains of the industrial city of 10,000.
Although fighting continues in the area, sources from The Kyiv Independent and international observers all agree that Ukraine does not control the city.
It is the first noticeable Russian success since their forces captured Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk after heavy fighting in June and July.
It’s also a huge vanity project for Yevgeniy Prigozhyn, the Kremlin insider responsible for the infamous Wagner Group. And it’s a long-wanted gift to Russian wartime propaganda, which craved at least some progress to show.
Soledar’s loss is largely the result of relentless human wave attacks that deplete Ukrainian defenses, as well as crushing knockout blows by regular troops. The setback also points to long-standing Ukrainian problems with chaotic command and control and the lack of a centralized approach and coordination in the area.
The lack of artillery and ammunition to withstand endless and massive Russian frontal attacks has also played a role – it has given the Russian forces a chance for a resolute attack.
But despite Russian propaganda presenting Soledar’s capture as a major victory, it has so far only been of tactical significance. Russia continues its efforts to build on the progress and break ground line communications (GLOCs), leaving Bakhmut to hang on.
The situation in Bakhmut, which became known as the Ukrainian fortress city, has become even more complicated, but it is still not critical.
A sudden rush
Wagner’s mercenary army has been trying to break through the Ukrainian defenses at Bakhmut since August.
Even the Wagner, with its costless storm tactics, has found it difficult to achieve substantial success in frontal assaults on heavily fortified Ukrainian positions in eastern Bachmut.
Russian attempts to launch a pincer movement on the city from the north and south have also been far too long and painful. In the last three months of 2022, Wagner forces managed to make certain gains south of Bakhmut, particularly in the town of Kurdiumivka, which was only seized in December.
Cutting off Bakhmut’s basic lines of communication (GLOCs) is a much more realistic way for Russians to succeed. To achieve this, the Russians must take control of three highways: the E40 (M03) Sloviansk-Bakhmut highway northwest of the city, the T0513 Bakhmut-Siversk highway north of the city, and the T0504 highway heading west to Kostiantynivka is walking.
For much of the battle, Russian advances in the area succeeded at only a few tens or a few hundred yards a day. It took Russia almost three months to advance about 4 kilometers and take Kurdiumivka, a village south of Bakhmut, about 12 kilometers from the T0504 highway.
The situation changed in early 2023, when regular troops, especially Russia’s elite VDV airborne units, were transferred to the area. Russian forces discovered weaknesses in Ukrainian defenses in Soledar and attacked them in full swing.
As early as January 5, the Russians approached the city from two assault axes, from the north and from the south, forcing the Ukrainian forces to retreat to avoid encirclement. In the following days, formations with the 46th Airborne Brigade of Ukraine, supplemented by artillery and additional armor, managed to stabilize the situation somewhat, but not for long.
After brief and fierce resistance in the western suburbs of the city, Ukrainian formations withdrew from the last pockets of Soledar around 12 January.
The Russians continued their efforts to increase its success, advancing further northwest and west to Blahodatne, Krasna Hora and Pidhorodne, where it made no immediate progress. And Ukrainian troops took up a new position on dominant heights west of Soledar along the T5013 road.
As a result, from January 20, Russian forces established fire control over two of the three supply lines with Bakhmut, namely the road to Siversk and also the junction leading to the Slovyansk highway. So the use of these ground communication lines is now impossible or hindered.
Russian pro-war media and state propaganda erupt in euphoria after many months without any success but with spectacular setbacks in Kharkiv, northern Donbas and Kherson. Russia continues to try to turn this into an operationally significant result that would pose a serious threat to the Bakhmut garrison or even a possible collapse of the Ukrainian front line.
And according to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a US-based defense think tank, Russian propaganda “has overstated the importance of Soledar, which is a Russian Pyrrus tactical victory at best.”
“Russian forces likely captured Soledar after committing significant resources to a very draining tactical victory that will accelerate the likely peak of degraded Russian forces near Bakhmut,” the think tank said.
“Russian forces may decide to maintain a consistently high rate of attacks in the Bakhmut area, but the diminished fighting power and cumulative exhaustion of Russian forces will prevent these attacks from achieving operationally significant results.”
According to the ISW, the capture of Soledar, a settlement of only about 12 square kilometers, will neither enable Russian forces to exert control over critical Ukrainian GLOCs in Bakhmut nor better position Russian forces to attack the city in the short term. to surround.
However, on January 19, Prigozhyn of Wagner, who continues to position his mercenary army as the sole protagonist of the operation, claimed the capture of Klishchiivka, an important village just south of Bakhmut.
Klishchiivka is known to have changed hands at least twice in recent weeks. And it is also an important and heavily fortified Ukrainian defense line covering the southern outskirts of Bakhmut.
As of January 20, the Ukrainian military command does not confirm the Russian presence in Klishchiivka. If Wagner’s claim is true, Russian troops could be between 3 and 5 kilometers from the Bakhmut-Kostiantynivka road, now the vital lifeline for Bakhmut.
Command in chaos?
Tom Cooper, an Austrian-based warfare expert and author, called the claimed capture of Klishchiivka “not a catastrophe but an unpleasant loss”.
The Russians still face a fortified city from one side, as well as miles of open terrain to cross before they can cut off the last Ukrainian supply line.
“It is more difficult to find cover in the open field than in built-up areas,” the expert said.
“And the terrain for the Russians is now largely open as far as Bila Hora and Chasiv Yar, which would allow them to drive deep behind the southern flank of Bakhmut’s defenses.”
According to the experts, the southern flank is defended by experienced Ukrainian combat units, including the National Guard’s 4th Rapid Response Brigade and the Army’s 28th and 53rd Mechanized Brigades, supported by the 40th Artillery.
“They are all experienced troops, some with additional training in Europe,” Cooper said.
“Problem: The Russians are coming in such numbers and so often that all units ended the day critically short of artillery and mortar ammunition. By nightfall, the Ukrainians were basically mowing down the attacking Russians with machine guns alone.”
Ukrainian troops in the Battle of Bakhmut have the will and determination, and they have better tactical skills and usually fight from protected positions. But Ukrainian troops still have “no tools to literally destroy the Russians faster”.
Another major problem for Ukraine is the lack of proper communication and coordination between “too many troops from too many different units in too small an area,” Cooper said.
According to the expert, the frontline area currently has elements of almost 15 different Ukrainian brigades.
And without well-coordinated command, Ukrainian units’ high motivation and combat experience are “all in vain,” Cooper said.