Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said his troops were withstanding "new and even tougher assaults" on the town of Soledar, which has been turned into a wasteland strewn with the bodies of dead Russian troops.
“Thanks to the resilience of our soldiers there, in Soledar, we won additional time and (preserved) forces for Ukraine,” Zelensky added.
But the fighting has also taken a huge toll on Ukrainian forces and military officials have acknowledged that Russian fighters have made gains in some areas.
Where is Soledar?
Soledar is a salt-mining town located in the Donetsk region, around 15 kilometers (nine miles) from Bakhmut.
Before the war it had a population of 70,000 but is now the epicenter of the entire war.
Who controls the town?
Ukrainian defense officials have stressed that Russian forces do not fully control the town but acknowledge they have advanced in certain areas.
Footage posted on social media on Monday shows Russian troops in the vicinity of the administration building in the center of the town.
Earlier on Monday, Russian-backed separatist forces in the Donetsk region said they captured the village of Bakhmutske, just a few kilometers away from Soledar.
How fierce is the fighting?
Earlier on Monday, the Ukrainian Armed Forces (AFU) said they repelled an attempt to seize Soledar, but that fighting had quickly resumed.
Zelensky claimed “the whole land in Soledar is covered with corpses of the invaders,” adding: “Everything is completely destroyed.”
In a post on Telegram, Deputy Defense Minister Ganna Malyar, said Russian troops in the latest attacks were “literally stepping on the corpses of their own soldiers using massed artillery, MLRS systems and mortars”.
There has been no official word on Ukrainian losses during the defense of the town.
What has Russia said about the attacks?
Russia’s defense ministry did not comment on Monday on the fighting in Soledar and technically, it’s not actually the Russian army that the Ukraine is fighting there.
Bakhmut and Soledar are the prized goals of Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner mercenary group, who has said the fighting is being undertaken "exclusively" by the group's units.
Malyar on Monday appeared to confirm this, saying: "Currently, the enemy has deployed a large number of assault units formed from the best reserves of the Wagner Group.”
On Tuesday, Prigozhin said Wagner was fighting "heavy, bloody battles" for control of the town. Possibly as an attempt to excuse his lack of success, he added: "Let's be honest with ourselves. The Ukrainian army is bravely fighting for Bakhmut and Soledar. Reports of their mass desertion are not true."
He added: "The Armed Forces of Ukraine are honourably defending the territory of Soledar,
Why is Prigozhin so obsessed with Soledar?
Prigozhin himself has claimed that he wants to seize Bakhmut and Soledar because of the strategic opportunity presented by the cavernous salt mines underneath the area which, pre-war, were used to host concerts and sporting events.
“The cherry on the cake is the system of Soledar and Bakhmut mines, which is actually a network of underground cities,” he said on Telegram on Saturday.
“It not only [has the ability to hold] a big group of people at a depth of 80-100 meters, but tanks and infantry fighting vehicles can also move about.”
Prigozhin also claimed the caves hold vast stockpiles of weapons from World War I but this has been disputed.
Is he telling the truth?
That’s up for debate, and the military advantage of holding the mines is questionable.
U.S. officials believe he’s simply motivated by the potential financial benefit of taking control of the mines which would be in line with Wagner’s modus operandi in other conflicts it has participated in.
The Institute for the Study of War also notes that some Russian milibloggers have questioned the wisdom of losing so many men in an attritional battle with Ukraine, saying that even taking Soledar and Bakhmut would be a strategic defeat in the context of so many losses.
U.S. officials said last week that out of a force of nearly 50,000 mercenaries, Wagner has sustained over 4,100 killed and 10,000 wounded in Ukraine. Over 1,000 of those killed died between late November and early December near Bakhmut.
The British Minsitry of Defense doesn't fancy Wagner's short-term chances, saying in its daily assessment on Tuesday: "Despite the increased pressure on Bakhmut, Russia is unlikely to envelop the town imminently because Ukrainian forces maintain stable defensive lines in depth and control over supply routes."
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