After a week of decisive combat, the Ukrainian town of Soledar on Jan. 13 fell to armed forces of the Russian Federation and the Wagner mercenary group — the first major victory to be had by the Kremlin since the beginning of the year.
The fall of Soledar represents a breach of the heavily fortified Ukrainian defensive line in the eastern Donbass region, which Russia claims as its own territory. Recent weeks have seen the Russian military bolster its efforts to take the Donbass oblast, or province, of Donetsk.
Soledar lies in the northern part of Donetsk on the flank of Bakhmut, a city of “outsized significance” in Russia’s ongoing operations, according to The Hill.
“Russia has been unable to take Bakhmut for months, despite constant shelling and veritable trench warfare with Ukrainian troops. Controlling Soledar, just a few miles away, would help them encircle the city and press in from a new direction in the north,” the DC-based newspaper reported on Jan. 13.
By Jan. 7, units of the Russian VDV airborne troops succeeded with a risky but fruitful dash across the fields to the north and south of the town, while Wagner operatives stormed Soledar head-on. The paratroopers’ advance, which was backed up by tanks moving along the rural tree lines, allowed them to gain a line of fire into Soledar and to the Ukrainian routes of supply and backup heading into the town.
Russians were geolocated in various locales west and south of Soledar following the battle, engaging Ukrainian troops still holding a salt mine and the Sol train station on Jan. 13.
‘Organized pull-back’ or haphazard retreat?
Surrounded on three sides, Ukrainian troops in Soledar found themselves pinned down in a state of disarray. On Jan. 13, a CNN reporter near the frontline described a “fairly organized pull-back” by the defenders from the town.
This is disputed by amateur military historian Alexandre Robert, who in a YouTube video analyzing the battle of Soledar, points to video clips circulating on social media showing the Ukrainian withdrawal.
He described how, based on various reports, hundreds of soldiers from the Ukrainian 46th Brigade holding Soledar refused to surrender despite being surrounded on three sides, then finally embarked on a retreat under fire.
On Jan. 10, a Ukrainian serviceman holed up with the garrison wryly remarked of the Russian VDV troops that “the problem is that they are not particularly frightened yet … and they’re attempting to cut off the supply route” into Soledar.
A Ukrainian officer nicknamed “Kleshnya” put things more bluntly in an interview with France 24: “They just don’t give up. They’re unstoppable, it’s awful. They’re like orcs.”
Robert noted that the Russians had conspicuously left open an avenue of retreat, which enabled the evacuation of the Ukrainian garrison at Soledar.
“Instead of having the defenders encircled with their backs against the wall and fighting like lions” like what happened in the Battle of Mariupol last spring, “they preferred to let one gap open for everyone to flee in a disorganized manner” and allow the Russians to occupy the area without the heavy casualties that would be taken if the Ukrainians were cornered, Robert said. He added that the Russians had engineered another such retreat in the city of Lisichansk to the northeast, which was taken last July.
Footage on social media shows the uneven and perilous character of the retreat following the Ukrainians’ last stand. Some troops trapped in multistory buildings made their escape by jumping out of windows; one Russian correspondent witnessed an entire squad gunned down as it tried to flee. One video is shot from the top of an armored personnel carrier (APC) leaving the battlezone, while another clip shows a squad of Ukrainians hitching a ride from a civilian van. Another group was less fortunate, having taken the wrong road and run into an ambush prepared by Russian forward units.
Novel Russian tactics
Robert, a Quebecois who has covered the Russia-Ukraine war extensively on his YouTube channel History Legends, said that he was surprised by the “completely different tactic” deployed by the Russians to take Soledar as compared with the invaders’ previous offensives.
The usual Russian approach is a brute-force assault from one village to the next, prefaced by intense artillery and airstrikes on the target area. This, Robert said, “requires a lot of time” to coordinate the attack as well as a prodigious supply of ammunition.
Robert pointed to the Russian’s earlier capture of Yakolivka, a village to the northeast of Soledar, as a move that was dismissed by many media outlets, but proved instrumental to the later advance of the Russian airborne troops’ northern thrust.
He speculates that the Russian VDV’s swift advance across the open terrain surrounding Soledar was made possible by using personnel from Wagner “penal battalions” — that is, criminals brought into military service — to test the ground for landmines before the primary assault. Robert noted a photo taken near Soledar showing many incapacitated Russians strewn about the field.
“There are dozens of bodies we can count and all in one specific area,” he said. “This sacrifice [would have] opened up a path for the second echelon.”
The frozen ground would have made it easier for Russian tanks and other armored fighting vehicles to support the VDV in close combat, while the presence of Russian helicopters to Robert suggests that the Ukrainian air defenses in the sector were weak or compromised.
On the other hand, many Ukrainian artillery units were attacked around the time of the operation, something that might have added to an increasing “feeling of isolation among the Ukrainian infantrymen.”
In Soledar itself, the units of the Wagner PMC appear to have used a combination of superior firepower and wall-breaching tactics to move around the town. By blowing holes in the walls of large buildings, the attackers would be able to take parts of Soledar by surprise.
One photo taken after the battle shows a Wagner fighter wearing a Ukrainian uniform while standing outside the captured town hall. “This sparked a lot of controversy. Some claimed that Wagner assault units infiltrated behind enemy lines in Ukrainian uniforms to cause havoc,” Robert said.
Wearing enemy uniforms in combat is considered a war crime. However, troops on both sides of the conflict have suffered from poor supply, compelling them to scavenge for food and gear.
Future moves in the Donbass campaign
The Russian victory in the battle of Soledar comes after Moscow shifted focus in its invasion of Ukraine to the Donbass region.
According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, 700 Ukrainian personnel were killed in action in the last three days of fighting for Soledar; the Ukrainian equivalent ministry denied that the town had fallen. As with the broader war, reliable claims and estimates of casualties on both sides in the battle are hard to come by.
Russian units have since the Ukrainian retreat continued to probe westwards, towards the road T0513. Robert predicts that the Russians will attempt to push across the road toward the city of Siversk, a city that was the site of a previous battle in July 2022.
“Then they can aim to complete the operational encirclement of Bakhmut by swinging south towards the M03 highway” and capturing the villages of Krasna Hora, Paraskoviivka, and Yahidne, all suburbs of Bakhmut.
Robert noted that Ukrainian troops had previously blown up several bridges north of Bakhmut, “meaning that already weeks ago they prepared to abandon this area if things were to go wrong.”
The town of Chasiv Yar lies on the main Ukrainian supply route heading to Bakhmut from the west, making it a natural second line of defense for the Ukrainians to fall back to. An open-source map shows at least seven brigades of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the sector, representing over 20,000 troops at peak strength.
Russian forces have vastly underperformed in the nearly one year of fighting, having been compelled to retreat or being outright defeated in several areas of Ukraine due to the deficiencies of the Russian army, copious Western support for the defenders, and the tenacity of the Ukrainians themselves.
Last September, the Kremlin called up hundreds of thousands of reservists to bolster Russia’s professional and elite troops fighting in Ukraine, a move that might have been prompted by sudden defeats in the northeast.
But in November, newly appointed Russian commander Vasiliy Surovikin announced a large-scale retreat of troops occupying the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson — the largest that Russia had managed to capture in the war.
Full-on hostilities between Russia and Ukraine began late last February as Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” to keep Ukraine in the Russian sphere and from forming a military alliance with the West.