Russian paramilitary ‘Wagner Group’ said to have captured Ukrainian salt mines as experts predict war will escalate
By JD Heyes // Jan 12, 2023

Russian forces in Ukraine have suffered a string of defeats in recent weeks, but a noted paramilitary force that operates with the permission of Moscow, the Wagner Group claims to have captured a key objective in the Ukrainian town of Soledar in the eastern region of Donetsk.

According to reports, the head of the organization, Yevgeny Prigozhin, admitted in social media comments on Tuesday and Wednesday that fighting continues in the region. But, he claimed, "Units of the Wagner private military company have taken the entire territory of Soledar under their control," and Ukrainian forces are now surrounded.

"The city center has been surrounded, and urban warfare is underway. The number of captives will be announced tomorrow," Prigozhin noted. "No units other than Wagner PMC fighters were involved in the storming of Soledar."

The Amsterdam-based Moscow Times and Agence France Presse emphasized: "If confirmed, the capture of Soledar would mark Russia’s biggest success in its war on Ukraine following months of retreats elsewhere."

But that said, Prigozhin's emphasis that it was "only Wagner" forces that captured the region and no regular forces managed any success in Soledar has led to consternation and anger among the Russian military chain of command.

In its daily briefing, the British Ministry of Defense (MoD) acknowledged that the majority of the town, or what's left of it, is under the control of Russia.

"In the last four days, Russian and Wagner forces have made tactical advances into the small Donbas town of Soledar and are likely in control of most of the settlement," the MoD said in a Twitter thread. "Soledar is 10km north of Bakhmut, the capture of which likely continues to be Russia’s main immediate operational objective.

"Russia’s Soledar axis is highly likely an effort to envelop Bakhmut from the north, and to disrupt Ukrainian lines of communication," the assessment from the MoD continued. "Part of the fighting has focused on entrances to the 200km-long disused salt mine tunnels which run underneath the district. Both sides are likely concerned that they could be used for infiltration behind their lines.

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"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," the thread concluded.

Reuters noted further:

Soledar is also home to cavernous salt mines that are owned by state-owned enterprise Artemsil, which completely dominated the Ukrainian market until it halted production a few months after Russia invaded. The enterprise has produced more than 280 million tonnes of salt since it was founded in the late 19th century. The mines go down to a depth of 200-300 metres and have tunnels with a combined length of 300 km (186 miles), according a local tourist website.

The enterprise was once considered one of the largest in Eastern Europe and exported salt to 20 countries. A hot air balloon was once flown inside one of the mines to demonstrate their depth.

Russia is continuing to have difficulty pacifying even a small part of Ukraine, but a change in leadership made this week by President Vladimir Putin may indicate he is preparing to escalate the conflict.

According to Business Insider, "Russia's Ministry of Defense on Wednesday announced that Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the longtime chief of the general staff of Russia's armed forces, was appointed the overall head of war in Ukraine after his high-profile predecessor, who was supposed to turn the tide, lasted just three months."

It could be said that Gerasimov's appointment wasn't the smartest thing to do, either, considering how long he's been in charge of all of Russia's armed forces and how poorly they have performed in Ukraine. Time will tell.

Sources include:

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