Ukrainian forces have withdrawn from the small town of Soledar after weeks of fierce fighting, a military spokesman said Wednesday, acknowledging a military gain for Russian forces that brings them closer to encirclement and eventual capture of the eastern strategic city of Bakhmut.
Colonel Sergei Cherevaty, spokesman for the Eastern Ukraine Military Command, said Soledar’s retirement was ordered “to preserve our personnel”.
“Russian forces expended colossal resources in lives and equipment to take Soledar while Ukraine was able to preserve its forces and prevent encirclement,” he said in an interview.
Soledar, which had around 10,000 inhabitants before the war, lies 10 km northeast of Bakhmut, a town in eastern Ukraine known as Donbass. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has sought to fully take over Donbass, which includes two regions – Donetsk and Lugansk. Since last summer, Russian forces have both shelled Bakhmut and fought for the towns around it, aiming to secure heights from which to position artillery and also to cut off roads used by Ukraine to reinforce his troops defending the city.
Pavlo Kyrylenko, the head of Ukraine’s military administration in Donetsk, which includes Soledar, said on Tuesday that Russian forces had shelled a series of towns in the region, including Paraskoviivka, which lies just west of Soledar. One person died in that attack, he said.
Moscow has held significant territory in the Donbass since 2014, including two regional capitals. But since capturing two key towns in Luhansk last summer, Russian military advances in the Donbass have been slow. Russian and Ukrainian forces suffered heavy casualties in heavy shelling and trench warfare. In recent weeks, soldiers have also had to endure freezing cold and mud.
The capture of Soledar marks a victory for the Kremlin but also for Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the private military company Wagner, who led much of Russia’s fighting around Bakhmut. Mr. Prighozin, a close associate of Mr. Putin, presented the Battle of Bakhmut as a measure of the effectiveness of his fighting force.
Wagner said earlier this month that Soledar had fallen, and military experts have said since last week that Ukraine appears to have fallen back. Wagner also said last week that he had captured the village of Klishchiivka, a few kilometers south of Bakhmut, in a further sign of his advance towards encirclement of the city. There was no comment from the Ukrainian military on this claim.
Russian forces are “already increasing the pressure” towards Bakhmut, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a speech Tuesday evening, adding: “And they want to increase the pressure on a larger scale.”