Russia has stepped up a powerful assault on Soledar in eastern Ukraine, officials in Kyiv said, forcing Ukrainian troops to repel waves of attacks led by the Wagner contract militia around the salt mining town and nearby fronts.
Soledar, in the industrial Donbas region, lies a few miles from Bakhmut, where troops from both sides have been taking heavy losses in some of the most intense trench warfare since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly 11 months ago.
Ukrainian forces repelled an earlier attempt to take the town but a large number of Wagner Group units quickly returned, deploying new tactics and more soldiers under heavy artillery cover, Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar said on Monday on the Telegram messaging app.
“The enemy literally step over the corpses of their own soldiers, using massed artillery, MLRS systems and mortars,” Malyar said.
Russia’s defence ministry did not mention either Soledar or Bakhmut in a regular media briefing on Monday, a day after facing criticism for an apparently false claim of a missile strike on a temporary Ukrainian barracks.
Wagner was founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Drawing some recruits from Russia’s prisons and known for uncompromising violence, it is active in conflicts in Africa and has taken a prominent role in Russia’s war effort in Ukraine.
Prigozhin has been trying to capture Bakhmut and Soledar for months at the cost of many lives on both sides. He said on Saturday its significance lay in a network of cavernous mining tunnels below the ground, which can hold big groups of people as well as tanks and other war machines.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in nightly video remarks on Monday that Bakhmut and Soledar were holding on despite widespread destruction. He cited new and fiercer attacks in Soledar, where he said no walls have been left standing and the land is covered with corpses.
“Thanks to the resilience of our soldiers in Soledar, we have won for Ukraine additional time and additional strength,” Zelenskiy said.
Zelenskiy did not spell out what he meant by gaining time or strength.
But Ukrainian officials, led by the commander in chief General Valery Zaluzhniy, have warned that Russia is preparing fresh troops for a new, major offensive on Ukraine, possibly on the capital Kyiv.
Military analysts say the strategic military benefit for Russia of capturing Bakhmut and Soledar would be limited. A U.S. official has said Prigozhin is eyeing the salt and gypsum from the mines, believed to extend over 100 miles underground and contain auditorium-scale caverns.
Pro-Russian bloggers quoted Prigozhin as saying his forces were fighting for the administration building in Soledar.
The Ukrainian military said reinforcements had been sent to the town.
In an evacuee centre in nearby Kramatorsk, Olha, 60, said she had fled Soledar after moving from apartment to apartment as each was destroyed in tank battles.
“There isn’t one house left intact. Apartments were burning, breaking in half,” said Olha, who gave only her first name.
Two people were killed in a Russian rocket attack on Kramatorsk on Monday evening, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, an aide to Zelenskiy, said on Telegram.
Some 25 miles (40 km) to the north in the town of Siversk, Ukrainian soldier Heorhil, 28, said Russian regular forces had replaced less well-trained fighters in the area.
“Unfortunately, both sides are suffering big losses, which means also our units have losses,” he said, speaking near destroyed houses blanketed in snow. “One should never underestimate the enemy.”
Reuters was not able to independently verify the battlefield reports.
Farther north in the Kharkiv region, a Russian missile strike on a marketplace in the village of Shevchenkove killed two women and wounded four others, including a 10-year-old girl, regional prosecutors said.
Badly injured people lay on the ground and rescue workers sifted through piles of rubble, overturned and burning stalls, and a large crater, video footage from police and Ukraine’s presidential office showed. A police officer carried a girl with blood on her face from the scene.
Moscow has not commented on the reports from the village, which Ukraine recaptured from Russian forces in September.
Ukrainian authorities reported multiple Russian strikes across the country, including on Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv, and infrastructure in the regions of Donetsk, Kherson and Mykolaiv – where the regional governor said 15 people were injured in the shelling of a coastal town.
As the war grinds towards the one-year mark, Russia’s military is under domestic pressure to deliver battlefield successes from hawkish commentators demanding more aggression following losses of territory and troops.
Russia, which initially cited a need to rid Ukraine of nationalists, now says it is fighting a Western threat to its own existence. Kyiv and its Western allies, which have imposed broad sanctions on Moscow and sent Ukraine weapons to defend itself, say last February’s invasion was entirely unprovoked.
Zelenskiy, who has lobbied allies frantically in recent weeks for weapons for Ukraine, continued his diplomatic marathon on Monday, speaking to several European leaders about increasing defence support for his country.
“The world knows that every day of Russian presence on Ukrainian soil means deaths, injuries, pain and suffering of people,” he said.