Russia has been trying to completely seize Soledar and Bakhmut for six months. Now the situation has worsened. Why does Russia need them? And what will happen if they are captured? Our brief and clear explanation (with maps)

Oleksiy Yarmolenko
Tetyana Lohvynenko
Russia has been trying to completely seize Soledar and Bakhmut for six months. Now the situation has worsened. Why does Russia need them? And what will happen if they are captured? Our brief and clear explanation (with maps)

Ukrainian military personnel fire from anti-aircraft weapons near Bakhmut, January 10, 2023.

In recent days, Russian troops have been able to achieve probably their biggest successes in the last 6 months. They captured most of the Soledar town in the Donetsk region — for the first time since the summer of 2022, the Russians came close to occupying any new town. Russian propaganda tries to present Soledar almost as a key city of the entire Donbas, and successes here almost as a breakthrough in the entire Ukrainian defense. At the same time, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces emphasizes that the battles for Soledar continue. The Ministry of Defense of Ukraine constantly says that very fierce battles are taking place outside the city, which indicates their intensity. However, the Russians do not pay attention to their insane losses in order to capture Soledar and Bakhmut. The loss of Soledar will significantly complicate the defense of Bakhmut, but will not mean its occupation. "Babel" explains why Russia needs these cities and whether they are of strategic importance.

What are the cities of Bakhmut and Soledar?

Bakhmut is a fairly large city in Donetsk region. Before the full-scale invasion, up to 80,000 people lived there. Bakhmut is divided into two parts by the river Bakhmutka. Most of the city is lies on sits western bank. There are blocks with high-rise buildings, administrative buildings, as well as a military unit of the 54th mechanized brigade of the Ukrainian army. In the eastern part of the city, there is only an industrial zone with various factories, including a famous champagne factory, and private buildings.

The Russians began to advance on Bakhmut simultaneously from the east and south. In July, the entire Bakhmut direction was placed under the responsibility of PMC Wagner and its head Yevgeny Prigozhin. It is the "Wagnerians" who storm Bakhmut from the summer of 2022 until now.

Soledar is a small town by the Donbas standards — about 10,000 people lived there before the full-scale invasion. It consists almost entirely of private buildings, only in the center of the city, where the salt mines and the state enterprise Artemsil are located, there are several high-rise buildings.

How long have the Russians stormed Bakhmut and Soledar?

The fighting for Soledar and Bakhmut in the Donetsk region began six months ago. Although the Russians have been creating the conditions for this since the spring, when they captured the town of Popasna in the Luhansk region in May. Then they started an offensive in three directions at once:

  • to the north towards Lysychansk,
  • to the west towards Soledar,
  • to the south and southwest towards Bakhmut and Svitlodarsk.

The main efforts of the Russians were directed to the Lysychansk direction — to help their troops, who were fighting urban battles in Severodonetsk. They were successful and at the beginning of July created an encirclement threat for the Ukrainian military in Lysychansk and Severodonetsk. The defense forces of Ukraine had to withdraw in order not to get into the cauldron. Since then, the Russians havenʼt captured any Ukrainian city and have not had any serious successes.

Other directions for the Russians were secondary. However, due to the fact that the occupiers advanced towards Svitlodarsk and created a threat to the encirclement, at the end of May the Ukrainian troops withdrew from there as well.

A Ukrainian military man drives a truck near Bakhmut, January 8, 2023.

When the Russians captured Lysychansk and Severodonetsk, they began to regroup, in particular, they sent a significant part of their most capable units to the right bank of the Kherson region to keep Kherson, which was still occupied at the time. In the Donetsk region at that time, they had already come close to the roads Bakhmut — Lysychansk and Bakhmut — Debaltseve.

The occupiers from Izyum, Kharkiv region, were moving towards the Russian troops in the Bakhmut area. The main goal of the Russians was to reach Slovyansk and Kramatorsk simultaneously from two sides and surround this agglomeration. And if there were about 20 kilometers left to Slovyansk from the Izyum side, Bakhmut had to be captured from the other side.

The Russians reached the eastern suburbs of Bakhmut back in August 2022. At the same time, they formally entered Soledar as well — seized the KNAUF factory in the eastern part of the city and settled there. However, they could not advance further. Most likely, the "Wagnerians" transferred the main forces to capture the territories south of Bakhmut. They did this all autumn: first in October they went to the road Bakhmut — Horlivka, in November they approached the southern outskirts of Bakhmut. In December, they reached the Siverskyi Donets—Donbas channel and at the same time began a large-scale assault on Bakhmut simultaneously from the south and east.



What is the situation in Bakhmut now?

The December assault didnʼt bring the occupiers much success: they were able to enter only a few blocks of private buildings in the east of the city. Then the Russians decided to make more efforts to surround Bakhmut. To do this, they need to cut two roads to the city: Bakhmut — Kostyantynivka and Bakhmut—Slovyansk. The first is located to the west of the city, the second to the north.

The Russians came quite close to the road Bakhmut—Kostyantynivka — at a distance of up to 10 kilometers. They only had to capture the village of Klishchiivka, but behind it on the hill there is a powerful fortified area of the Ukrainian military, which can be seen even on satellite images. Most likely, fortifications were built there long before a full-scale invasion.

Fortified positions of the Ukrainian military behind the village of Klishchiivka (in the upper left corner).

The road from Bakhmut to Slovyansk in the north was covered by Soledar. The Russians could not have entered it if they had not captured this town. And Soledar itself wasnʼt so easy to occupy. The town is located on the hills and stretched perpendicular to the front line. To capture it completely, the Russians had to advance almost 8 kilometers. In addition, in the center of the city there are deep salt mines where itʼs possible to hide from shelling.

What is the situation in Soledar now?

The defense of Soledar was based on holding two villages: Bakhmutske in the south and Yakovlivka in the north. At the end of December, the Russians nevertheless captured Yakovlivka and immediately developed a further offensive. In a few days, they reached the central part of Soledar from the north. Already on January 5, it became known that the Russians were able to break through the defenses of Ukrainian troops in the area of Bakhmutske. Because of this, the Ukrainian Defense Forces had to withdraw to the central part of Soledar.

The Russians developed their offensive very rapidly and quickly reached the center of Soledar from the north and south, starting urban battles. At the same time, they tried to enter the western part of the town in order to cut off the Ukrainian troops in the town center and surround them. On the way, they captured the village of Pidhorodne to the northeast of Bakhmut and are fighting for the village of Krasna Hora.

Currently, the situation in Soledar is not completely known, although the Russians claim that they have captured the city. Some videos show that the occupiers are present in the central part of the city and a little further. But there is no evidence that they are in the western parts — in the area of the former mine #7 or the "Sil" railway station. The Russians also like to flaunt their flag in captured cities, but so far there are no photos or videos of it being flown in Soledar. This may indicate that the fighting continues and the occupiers cannot gain a foothold. Despite this, on the evening of January 12, the people of Wagner actively published photos and videos from various places in the central part of Soledar in their Telegram channels. Shooting battles are no longer heard on them. This may indicate that Ukrainian troops have withdrawn from the city center.

Map as of January 13, 2023.


Why do Russians need Soledar?

Russian propaganda tries to portray the alleged capture of Soledar as super important achievement of the army. If the Ukrainian Defense Forces do not hold the city, Russia will indeed have almost the greatest success since the capture of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk in the summer of 2022. This will also greatly complicate the defense of Bakhmut, because the Russians will be able to shoot through the roads that supply the Ukrainian troops in the city.

But these tactical successes of the Russians cannot be compared with the counteroffensive of the Ukrainian army in the fall of 2022. Then, in early September, the Defense Forces of Ukraine liberated almost the entire Kharkiv region in a few days. And in November, they forced the Russians to retreat from the right bank of the Kherson region and Kherson city.

The battle for Soledar made the conflict between the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation and PMC Wagner and Prigozhin even more obvious and public. Prigozhin himself assures that on January 10, his mercenaries captured Soledar — and did it without the help from other forces. But on the same day, the Russian Ministry of Defense doesnʼt say anything about the capture of the city, but assures that Soledar was blocked from the north and south by Russian paratroopers. This means that the Russians, in addition to the "Wagnerians", transferred the land units to the Bakhmut direction. The very next day, January 11, Russia changes the commander of the occupation forces — it appoints Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov to this position. At the same time, Telegram channels associated with Prigozhin and he himself actively criticized Gerasimov. In this video, for example, the "Wagnerians" swear at Gerasimov because of problems with the provision of troops. After two days of public conflict over who "captured" Soledar after all, the Ministry of Defense of Russia admitted that it was the "Wagnerians" who stormed the city center, but with the support of artillery and aviation of the Russian regular army.

Why do Russians need Bakhmut?

There is no talk of the loss of Bakhmut yet — Ukraine threw a significant number of troops into the defense of the city. Although from a strategic point of view, Bakhmut is no longer of great importance. It was important for the Russians to capture it when they were still in Izyum and advancing on Slovyansk. At that time, this city was needed to reach Slovyansk and Kramatorsk from several sides. Now the Russians donʼt have the Izyum group, and after Bakhmut they will have to bite through the defenses of the Ukrainian troops near Chasiv Yar, near Kostyantynivka, and near Kramatorsk. Bakhmut became primarily a political goal for Russia — if itʼs taken, this will allow the occupiers to demonstrate at least some success in almost six months. Prigozhin, whose mercenaries were tasked with capturing the city, also wants to prove his effectiveness, but they still canʼt do it.

A man walks past a building destroyed by a Russian missile in Bakhmut on January 8, 2023.

Are Bakhmut and Soledar important for Ukrainian defense?

Western mass media have already begun to doubt the Ukrainian armyʼs decision to defend Bakhmut and Soledar at any cost. In their opinion, since the cities are not of strategic importance, it would be worthwhile to withdraw from them to a fortified line of defense behind Bakhmut and prepare reserves for the upcoming spring counteroffensive. But Mykola Bielieskov, an expert of the National Institute of Strategic Studies and a senior analyst of the Come Back Alive Foundation, disagrees with them. He says that the Russians use the tactics of live waves — that is, they release cannon fodder from former prisoners to discover Ukrainian positions, which are then stormed by experienced mercenaries. The Russians can use this tactic anywhere: both in Bakhmut itself and behind it. Therefore, it doesnʼt matter where the Ukrainian troops will defend themselves.

Bielieskov emphasizes that Ukraine desperately needs cluster munitions to combat such tactics. The US has such missiles for Western rocket launchers, including HIMARS, the M30A1. They explode above the ground and release around 182,000 tungsten balls that effectively destroy infantry and lightly armored targets. There is no information that Ukraine already has such missiles.

However, the occupation of Bakhmut will create certain problems for Ukrainian troops. The Ukrainian Defense Forces will probably have to withdraw from the city of Siversk north of Bakhmut because the Russians will pose a threat from the flank and may try to pin them down to the Siverskyi Donets River. The Russians will also threaten the defenders of the city of Toretsk south of Bakhmut from the flank. If the Ukrainian troops withdraw from Siversk, the Russians will also threaten the Defense Forces of Ukraine, which are just now advancing towards the city of Kreminna in the Luhansk region, across the river.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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Ukrainian military personnel fire from anti-aircraft weapons near Bakhmut, January 10, 2023