Ukrainian Troops Defend Soledar As Russia Increases Troop Presence

Ukraine said on Thursday that its troops were still holding out, even though there was heavy fighting on a battlefield filled with dead bodies in a salt mining town in eastern Ukraine. This is where Russian mercenaries made Moscow’s first big gain in half a year.

The ultranationalist Russian mercenary group Wagner, which is led by a friend of President Vladimir Putin outside of the normal military chain of command, says it has taken Soledar after days of intense fighting that left the city full of dead Ukrainians.

Moscow hasn’t said yet that they’ve won there. Even though Ukraine knows that Russia is making progress, it said Thursday that it has not pulled out its own troops.

In a briefing on Thursday, the Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said, “The fighting is fierce.” She also said that the Russians were “moving over their own corpses.” Reuters was not able to find out on its own what was going on inside Soledar.

Malyar said that Russia has increased the number of units in Ukraine from 250 to 280 in the past week in an effort to gain the strategic initiative.

People who keep an eye on the Kremlin were trying to figure out what Russia’s latest change in battlefield leadership meant a day after Valery Gerasimov, the head of the military’s general staff, was put in charge of the invasion in a way that surprised everyone. Sergei Surovikin, the man who had been in charge before Gerasimov, was essentially demoted and made one of Gerasimov’s three assistants.

Moscow said that the decision, which was at least the third sudden change of command in the 11-month war, was made because the campaign was becoming more important.

Both Russian and Western commentators saw attempts to put the blame on someone else for the months of setbacks that have caused Russia to lose about 40% of the land it had taken since February.

Gerasimov had been chief of staff for more than a decade. He had become a target of abuse from nationalist bloggers, many of whom had hundreds of thousands of readers. These bloggers have done well even though the Kremlin has shut down all independent media and put its critics in jail.

The British Ministry of Defense said, “The move is likely to cause a lot of anger among Russian ultranationalists and military bloggers, who have been blaming Gerasimov for how poorly the war has been run.”

Rybar, a well-known Russian military blogger who writes on the Telegram app, said that Surovikin was being made the scapegoat for recent military failures.

Other analysts wondered if Gerasimov was being set up: “Have Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu finally put everything in place to make Gerasimov the fall guy for all of Russia’s failures in the war?” A retired Australian major general named Mick Ryan sent out a tweet.

“Every Russian general must have at least one chance to fail in Ukraine,” the defence ministry of Ukraine tweeted as a joke. “Some people might get lucky and fail twice.”

Costly battles in winter mud

If Russia is able to take Soledar, it would be the biggest win for Moscow since a series of embarrassing losses in the second half of 2022. But military experts say the cost has been too high because of the fierce battles that left bodies all over the freezing mud.

Before the war, there were only about 10,000 people living in Soledar, and Russia has tried many times but failed to take the nearby, much more important, and ten times larger city of Bakhmut.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the president of Ukraine, laughed at the idea that Russia’s gains were a big win.

In an overnight address, he said, “Now the terrorist state and its propagandists are trying to say that a part of our city of Soledar, which was almost completely destroyed by the occupiers, is some kind of Russian achievement.”

Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said on Wednesday that his troops had taken over all of Soledar and killed about 500 Ukrainian soldiers after a lot of fighting. The Kremlin, however, was more cautious.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, the governor of Donetsk, told Ukrainian state TV that 559 civilians, including 15 children, were still in Soledar and could not be moved because fighting was still going on.

Ukraine hopes for tanks

Since Russia’s last big retreat in the south two months ago, the front lines in Ukraine haven’t moved much.

Kyiv says it wants to get rid of all Russian troops this year, and it hopes that when heavy armour from Western allies arrives in the coming months, it will be able to start moving forward again.

Last week, the US, Germany, and France made a promise for the first time to send armoured fighting vehicles. This week, the focus has moved to main battle tanks, which could change Ukraine’s abilities in a big way.

On Wednesday, the streets of the Ukrainian city of Lviv gave Polish President Andrzej Duda a hero’s welcome. He broke a taboo by promising to send the first company of 14 German-made Leopard tanks as part of what he called an international coalition.

But to do that, they need permission from Germany. Germany says that sending weapons to Ukraine must be coordinated, and on Wednesday, it said that none of its allies had asked it to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine. Britain says it’s thinking about sending tanks.

Putin sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine on February 24, saying that Kyiv’s close ties with the West threatened Russia’s security. Kyiv and its allies say that it is an unprovoked war to take over land.

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