Russia is sending more troops to eastern Ukraine, Kyiv says
Comrades of Volodymyr Kerbut, a rifle division commander recently slain outside Bakhmut, to his funeral in Bucha, Ukraine on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023.
By MATTHEW MPOKE BIGG and MEGAN SPECIA
Russia is building up its forces in Ukraine, a senior Ukrainian defense official said Thursday, as Moscow’s forces struggle on in their bid to capture a small salt-mining town in the east that has largely been reduced to rubble.
The battle over Soledar has become emblematic of Moscow’s labored and costly offensive in eastern Ukraine.
After days of intense street fighting, uncertainty over which side controlled the town of Soledar in Donetsk province remained Thursday, though there was no doubt about the devastation that had been wrought. Images released by the satellite company Maxar showed a score of apartment buildings and houses shattered beyond repair.
Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, said that “Russia is building up its forces in Ukraine but Ukrainian forces are holding out in fierce fighting for control of the eastern town of Soledar.”
Citing the country’s intelligence service, she said Russia was moving troops trained in Belarus and Russia to the combat zone to focus on Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in the east of the country.
Soledar and a number of other locations in the Bakhmut region “were subject to tank, mortar, barrel and rocket artillery attacks,” according to an update from Ukraine’s General Staff of the Armed Forces.
The general staff bulletin claimed that about 100 Russian soldiers had been killed by Ukrainian special forces working with other front-line teams. It was not possible to confirm the figure independently.
“The enemy is suffering great losses,” said Serhiy Cherevaty, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s eastern forces.
The Kremlin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said Thursday that “a huge amount of work has been done” in the battle for Soledar, but that “there is still a lot of work ahead.”
While it is technically a city, Soledar had a prewar population of just 10,000 people. It lies about 6 miles from Bakhmut, a town with a prewar population of 70,000 that Russian forces have targeted since the summer, pouring in troops and attacking with artillery in the surrounding towns and villages.
Russia sees Bakhmut as a gateway to the complete conquest of Donbas, the industrial region that includes Donetsk province. Moscow seized part of the region in 2014 and established breakaway republics.
The Kremlin on Wednesday named Gen. Valery Gerasimov, who helped plan Russia’s stumbling invasion in February and who had served as Putin’s military chief of general staff for more than a decade, to replace Gen. Sergei Surovikin as the head of Russian forces in Ukraine.
But that failed to reassure some Russian commentators, whose critical views of the conduct of the war have become increasingly influential.
“The sum does not change, just by changing the places of its parts,” wrote one prominent blogger who goes by the name Rybar.
If Russia were to take Soledar, it would be the first victory for Moscow’s forces after months of territorial gains by Ukraine in the northeast and south.
“Ukraine starts the year in better shape than Russia. The Ukrainian Armed Force have momentum,” said Mick Ryan, a recently retired Australian army major general, noting the growing impact of air defense systems and weapons, which may soon include tanks, being supplied to Ukraine by its allies in Washington and Europe.