With one notable exception, Russian forces have had to revert to the defensive in their nearly year-long invasion of Ukraine. The one exception is in the Bakhmut region, where Russian forces mainly comprising the Wagner Group mercenaries run by Yevgeny Prigozhin still attempt advances. The fighting in this theater has become particularly intense near Soledar, a strategic point that the Ukrainians need to hold in order to keep Russians from overrunning their positions around the larger city of Bakhmut.
Just how intense has the fighting become in Soledar? According to Volodymyr Zelensky, the Wagner Group has stopped aiding its wounded and evacuating its dead in order to remain entirely on the offensive, and finally score some sort of victory in Ukraine for Vladimir Putin:
The corpses of Russian soldiers are ‘covering the ground’ of a Ukrainian town where there is ‘no life left’ amid fierce fighting, president Volodymyr Zelensky said last night.
In Soledar, once a bustling salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine, the ground is now scarred from a relentless stream of missiles and gunfire as Russian forces aim to take control of the nearby and key city of Bakhmut. …
Yet this rare Russian victory has come at a high price for Putin’s men, with Zelensky saying on Monday night that it’s been a bloodbath in Soledar.
‘Everything is completely destroyed, there is almost no life left. Thousands of their people have been lost: the whole ground near Soledar is covered with the corpses of the occupiers and scars from the blows. This is how madness looks like,’ the Ukrainian leader said.
As has been the case for the entirety of the invasion, Ukrainian forces have dug in as well. Despite the waves of offensive operations, they have refused to budge, somewhat reminiscent of their months-long stand at the Azovstal iron and steel plant in Mariupol. The Wagner Group may be prevailing in this instance, too; British defense analysts now say that Prigozhin’s forces control most of the space in Soledar, although what’s left to them is probably worthless except for its strategic positioning.
The real prize in this portion of the Donbas is Bakhmut, which has a huge warren of underground caverns and passages. The same British analysts foresee a much more difficult fight for Russia in that objective, as Ukraine’s defense and supply lines are robust and well-protected. That raises a big question about this strategy, especially since Bakhmut might be important in the local theater but hardly as important as Kherson was to Putin’s overall objectives. Why throw everything at Soledar as opposed to the southwestern front to recapture Russia’s key land link to Crimea?
The objective in this case may be located in the Kremlin rather than Ukraine. For one thing, Prigozhin has gone out of his way to issue rare praise to Ukrainian forces fighting Wagner Group troops:
In a highly unusual move, Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin praised the Ukrainian soldiers for ‘honourably defending’ Soldedar and dismissed allegations that Zelensky’s men were deserting front lines en masse in the town.
‘On the western outskirts of Soledar there are heavy bloody battles. The Armed Forces of Ukraine are honourably defending the territory of Soledar,’ the Kremlin-linked businessman said on social media.
‘Let’s be honest with ourselves. The Ukrainian army is bravely fighting for Bakhmut and Soledar. Reports of their mass desertion are not true,’ Prigozhin said.
That cuts entirely against Putin’s preferred narrative. Putin argued at the beginning of his “special military operation” that Ukraine was being led by a small clique of “nazis” who were betraying ordinary Ukrainians by aligning with the West rather than their natural Russian allies. Putin has continued to insist that Ukrainians are Russians and that most of them want an anschluss — er, excuse me, ‘unification.’ Prigozhin’s praise contradicts that, hailing Ukrainians as tenacious fighters fully dedicated to their defense of their land. It happens to also be true, but it’s a strange development in a society as tightly wrapped as Putin’s Russia.
That, however, is almost certainly strategic for Prigozhin’s real purpose. As ISW points out, Prigozhin wants to rack up an offensive win in order to impact the balance of power at the Kremlin, where his rival Sergei Shoigu is floundering:
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin continues to use reports of Wagner Group success in Soledar to bolster the Wagner Group’s reputation as an effective fighting force. Wagner Group forces claimed to capture territory within Soledar over the past few days, and many Russian sources have discussed the gains as indicators that Wagner Group forces may soon encircle Bakhmut. Combat footage widely circulated on social media on January 9 shows Wagner Group fighters engaging in fierce small arms combat near the city administration building in central Soledar. Several Russian milbloggers remarked on January 8 and 9 that Wagner Group forces are responsible for block-by-block advances in Soledar and other critical settlements northeast of Bakhmut, as well as within Bakhmut. Prigozhin emphasized on January 9 that “exclusively” Wagner Group units are taking ground in Soledar, and noted that Wagner fighters are currently engaged in “fierce battles for the city administration building.” Prigozhin will continue to use both confirmed and fabricated Wagner Group success in Soledar and Bakhmut to promote the Wagner Group as the only Russian force in Ukraine capable of securing tangible gains, as ISW has previously reported.
If Prigozhin loses hundreds or thousands of his troops but still manages to capture Soledar and Bakhmut, Prigozhin still wins — even if he can’t do anything with those gains. He will have demonstrated Shoigu’s incompetence and embarrassed the entire Russian military, which would definitely put Prigozhin in a much more politically powerful position. The Russian milblogger class and the ultranationalists will rally to Prigozhin and against Shoigu, at least in the short run — all over a couple of offensive wins that are likely to be Pyrrhic at best and will have no real strategic impact on the overall invasion. In a long season of defeat and retreat, Prigozhin will have the only wins on the board.
That’s why Prigozhin needs to sell Soledar as a major battle against a determined foe. A walkover against a local militia has no value to Prigozhin in the Kremlin and in Moscow. It has to be a major battle against worthy enemies in order to set up Prigozhin’s next claims to power.
Of course, Prigozhin has to win it first. If Russians are leaving their wounded to die in the field, that will eventually erode morale even among supposedly high-morale units like the Wagner Group. Unit cohesion comes from men supporting comrades, not leaving them to die in the cold. The longer that goes on, the less willing those men will be to risk their lives for commanders who demonstrably treat them like animals rather than fellow brothers-in-arms. If Prigozhin can’t get a win quickly, he may end up with the same problems Shoigu has.