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Ukrainian soldiers on their frontline positions near Soledar, January 11, 2023.

After Soledar With the capture of a Ukrainian mining town, Evgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group has a fine prize for Putin. But what’s next?

Source: Meduza
Ukrainian soldiers on their frontline positions near Soledar, January 11, 2023.
Ukrainian soldiers on their frontline positions near Soledar, January 11, 2023.
Libkos / AP / Scanpix / LETA

With the Russian army’s recently intensified offensive toward Bakhmut, the city (together with the adjacent salt-mining town of Soledar, whose name translates as “salt giver”) emerged as Russia’s main objective in the Donbas. On January 8, right after a 36-hour “ceasefire” announced unilaterally by Russia but observed by no one, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke of the area around Bakhmut as “one of the bloodiest places on the frontline.” The following day, the Wagner Group launched a “powerful assault” on Soledar itself, where Russian troops were “literally advancing over their own soldiers’ dead bodies,” in the words of Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar. As of January 12, Wagner detachments seemed to have seized the greater part of Soledar — Prigozhin claiming sole credit for the Wagner Group, while Russia’s Defense Ministry kept conspicuously silent about the operation. The offensive itself, meanwhile, still eludes full rational explanation, like much else in Russian military strategy. Meduza’s podcast host Vladislav Gorin and military analyst Dmitry Kuznets tried to make sense of the Bakhmut offensive and its place in the war’s big picture. Anna Razumnaya recaps how Dmitry Kuznets understands the military situation and what it foreshadows for the next phase of the war.

Soledar in the big picture

The first thing to understand about the assault on Soledar and its apparent recent seizure by Russian troops is that Soledar, Bakhmut, Siversk, and Kreminna (several dozen kilometers, or about 40 miles, north of Soledar) make up a single segment of the frontline and are treated as a unit by both Kyiv and Moscow. Losing Soledar automatically threatens the Ukrainian positions around Bakhmut, as well as the supply lines west of the urban area, just as a Ukrainian breakthrough by Kreminna, on the northern flank of the Russian grouping, would imperil the Russian offensive on Bakhmut. The Ukrainian army has been making progress in that area, gaining control over the Kamenske forest preserve, just a few miles from Kreminna.

The recent assault by Evgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group forces on Soledar, the lesser city neighboring Bakhmut, took place against the backdrop of speculation about what it is that Prigozhin wants in the area. Reuters, The Guardian, and other outlets all wrote about a certain U.S. official who thinks Prigozhin seeks the salt and gypsum mines in the vicinity. But this commercial scheme isn’t likely his motivation, thinks Meduza’s military analyst, Dmitry Kuznets. “I think that we can discard the idea of Prigozhin’s commercial interest here,” he says. “In the wake of combat, there will be very little left of Soledar’s salt mines or any other facilities.”

What is it, then, that makes Prigozhin so doggedly committed to claiming this area? Kuznets proposes a pragmatic scenario:

I think this area was chosen for an offensive based on the availability of a stable supply for the Wagner Group and its supporting forces… Last spring, they started fighting near Popasna, a couple of dozen kilometers away from Bakhmut, advancing kilometer by kilometer, or rather by just a few dozen meters daily, on most days. The strategic sense here is only this: to advance where they can, leaching the Ukrainian reinforcements. 

Significant Ukrainian forces are concentrated here now. The exact numbers are hard to estimate, though this is actually a very important question. We don’t fully understand what forces are deployed by the sides in this battle. Judging by the number of Ukrainian brigades in this area, we might think this a large portion of the Ukrainian army. There’s a baker’s dozen of different brigade numbers here, some of those brigades probably just partly present — it might be something like two battalions out of six. Some brigades are present in full, but mostly these are partial formations.

Why? We can only guess. Maybe the Ukrainian command would like to give the impression of concentrating its bulk toward Bakhmut. In reality, that bulk might concentrated elsewhere and preparing for an offensive. Everything else will depend on the Ukrainian command’s readiness to stick to the defense of Bakhmut. In the future, this will require additional reinforcements, since we can already see that the forces in place cannot keep the Russian offensive at bay.

To the west, north, and south, Bakhmut is framed by elevations where defensive lines have already been equipped. If Bakhmut is lost, Ukrainian defenders will retreat to the new lines, and “everything will start all over again,” says Kuznets. But — and this is no small “but” — at the beginning of the Bakhmut operation, which started as far back as last July, part of the Russian plan was to advance simultaneously from Izium. This plan involved a grouping that has since been decimated and redistributed, partly to Russia, partly to Svatove and Kreminna in the Luhansk region. What remains of that plan is an isolated offensive on Bakhmut, which makes next to no strategic sense, apart from stretching Ukraine’s reserves and resources.

An unembellished view of this offensive would be simply this: the Wagner Group is advancing here because it can. And since it can achieve results at this particular point — having set up its logistics, defensive lines, and artillery to its best advantage — it is fighting where it can maximize the appearance of success. Although the Defense Ministry has, in fact, supplied some of its artillery, Prigozhin is now quite outspoken in claiming full credit for the Soledar operation. Much of it unfolded during the absurd “unilateral ceasefire,” which the Wagner Group didn’t have to observe, not being subject to the Defense Ministry that committed to it, at least verbally. It was during the Christmas “ceasefire” that the mercenary group made a major breakthrough in the Donbas offensive.

Is Bakhmut the new Lysychansk?

At first glance, this might all look like a replay of what happened last summer. For months, Russia had the initiative. After heavy battles, invading troops captured the urban sprawl of Lysychansk and Siverodonetsk, spending large volumes of ammunition in the process. Following Lysychansk’s capture, Putin said that soldiers needed rest, and he personally ordered an operative pause. In that time window, the Ukrainian command emerged with high-precision long-range weapons, including the multiple rocket launchers it got from the U.S., firing them at the Russian munitions depots. As a result, the pause culminated in the Ukrainian counteroffensive on the Kharkiv and Kherson directions. Although each of these campaigns developed differently, their result was the same: Ukraine liberated the greater part of these occupied territories.

Something similar could happen this time around, too, but that’s not an endorsement of complacency. In the background, throughout this situation, the balance of personnel numbers on both sides has been shifting, mainly due to Russia’s “partial” mobilization and the creation of new military formations manned by new conscripts. It’s hard to judge how combat-ready, well-armed, and disciplined these new formations are, but Russia’s old problems with military supply were probably less severe than its current shortage of trained officers. The incident in Makiivka, where an entire regiment had been housed in close quarters, leading to big losses in a Ukrainian missile attack, highlights this difficulty in immediately staffing a larger army with competent managers.

Integrating all the new formations into a coherent army structure is also bound to be problematic. We see and hear regular complaints from soldiers on the frontline, who say they’ve been abandoned by their command, or that they never get orders and don’t receive vital supplies. There’s likely no quick solution to these problems, which suggests that a large-scale Russian offensive in some new direction is probably not imminent.

Cold weather and the war of attrition

For combatants, cold weather means both gains and losses, explains Dmitry Kuznets. On the downside, it calls for specific supplies of warm clothes, wood stoves, and combustible fluids. Equipment requires special care in the cold. On the other hand, you don’t have to deal with sinking armored personnel carriers or water-logged trenches. The ground is frozen, which stabilizes the supply lines. In terms of combat, the hard ground also permits off-road use of machinery and even infantry.

But this war’s general momentum, explains Dmitry Kuznets, depends little on weather, apart from its impact on supplies. (Supply itself is paramount as a factor.) In the sense that both sides are dealing with materiel shortages, this is a typical war of attrition, and outcomes will depend on which side deals best with deficits of arms, ammunition, equipment, and so on. This is why Ukraine’s Western partners have so much say in deciding its future.

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What can be stated with confidence even at this moment is that, very soon, Russia will have to change its habit of wasting inordinate quantities of ammunition (tens of thousands of rounds daily, according to Ukrainian and Western estimates). Russian industrial capacity cannot keep up with this rate of consumption; current output would need to spike by something like a dozen times. This isn’t something that can be done instantly. The shortages that hurt so badly in a genuine war of attrition are already hurting. We have heard about Evgeny Prigozhin and some other, unnamed figures in the Wagner Group swearing at the Russian Chief of Command Valery Gerasimov for not sending them enough ammunition in the march on Bakhmut. Is the situation already critical? That’s still hard to say. Is the problem real? Certainly.

Truth be told, the Western defense industry was not set up for a prolonged war, either. The most marketable ammunition calibers are mainly produced by the United States, where production is focused on high-precision ammo — dozens, but possibly even hundreds of times more effective than the less efficient types. Still, American production rates could be insufficient to keep pace with Ukraine’s confident progress throughout this war.

The air war

Air defense is a separate issue, underpinned by NATO’s reliance on aircraft for missile defense, coupled with Western leaders’ reluctance to supply aircraft to Ukraine. Still, given the most recent aid packages that included American and German armored personnel carriers, and the talk about tanks, we shouldn’t rule out that Ukraine might receive warplanes, eventually. But Kyiv isn’t getting them yet. Meanwhile, the Russian command has perceived that air defense is Ukraine’s weakest point, given the lack of ammunitions for Soviet-era installations, and the impossibility of replacing them quickly with Western equipment.

In this context, Russia continues to drain Ukraine’s air defense of its ammunition reserves by forcing the Ukrainian military to defend the nation’s critical infrastructure. The end goal of the missile strikes, though, might ultimately be to render Ukraine unable to defend its frontline units. Then, Russia’s military would finally be able to use air power over the frontlines — something it hasn’t been able to do since last spring, due to heavy aviation losses.

As these plots continue to develop in the coming months, we shouldn’t forget that, in the words of Dmitry Kuznets, “a war of attrition is not just a ‘story’ about resources — it’s also a story of morale and governance.” This applies to both Ukrainian and Russian forces. Additionally, Ukraine has a moral advantage that aids troop morale, while the same cannot be said about the Russian army’s fighting spirit.

Further defeats added to what we’ve already seen in Kharkiv and Kherson could be disastrous for Russia’s high command, purely in terms of morale in the ranks.

From a soldier’s point of view

Written off in advance How an untrained and unarmed ‘platoon’ of new conscripts from Moscow was decimated near Svatove

From a soldier’s point of view

Written off in advance How an untrained and unarmed ‘platoon’ of new conscripts from Moscow was decimated near Svatove

Interview by Vladislav Gorin; analysis by Dmitry Kuznets; digest by Anna Razumnaya

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