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Soledar became the focus point of the frontline in the beginning of 2023

Ukrainian forces continue to defend the town in the Donetsk region despite Russia’s fake claims about taking over it. However, in the middle of the fierce street fighting, it is hard to say how much of the city is controlled by Ukraine and how much – by the invaders.

What is happening in Soledar now?

Soledar is a small industrial town in the Donetsk region near Bakhmut. in the summer, the frontline got closer to it. And since the beginning of 2023, Soledar has become the site of the fiercest battle.

“Heavy fighting continues in Soledar. After the losses suffered, the enemy once again replaced his units, increased the number of Wagnerites, tried to break through the defense of our troops and completely capture the city, but was unsuccessful,” said Hanna Maliar, Deputy Minister of Defense of Ukraine, on January 10. 

Russian forces constantly launch dozens of artillery attacks on the town each day. On January 12, Serhii Cherevatyi, the spokesman for the eastern group of the AFU, reported that 91 artillery strikes were made on Soledar in a day. 

Soledar, January 11, 2023.
Photo: Konstantyn & Vlada Liberov

For several days in a row, Ukrainian representatives had to debunk information from different Russian sources about occupants taking over the city.

“There are fierce battles; it is a bit inappropriate to estimate, in terms of percentage, how much of the city is controlled by us and how much is controlled by the enemy. Fighting is going on, and it’s a fierce fight. So far, so good,” stated Oleksii Hromov, Deputy Chief of the Main Operations Department of the General Staff of the AFU on January 12.

On January 13, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine once again reported that the battles for Soledar continue.

Update. On January 25, Serhii Cherevatyi, a spokesman for the Eastern group of the Armed Forces of Ukraine confirmed, that the Ukrainian military withdrew from Soledar “to save the lives of the personnel”.

There are still civilians in Soledar

Before the full-scale Russian invasion, the town had just over 10 thousand residents. As the main enterprises stopped operating, and the frontline got closer, most people left for safer locations. By July 2022, only two thousand residents stayed in Soledar. 

Now, in the middle of fierce fighting, five hundred civilians still remain in town. Earlier, people were given an opportunity to evacuate, but some refused to leave. And now it is not possible to do so due to the active hostilities, said Pavlo Kyrylenko, Head of Donetsk Regional Military Administration.

“They have a supply of food, metal stoves, firewood. Stocks were made before New Year’s. People saved up, and we distributed more, because we understood that the situation could worsen,” Kyrylenko explained. For now, remaining residents have to stay in shelters and basements: there are almost no undamaged buildings left in the town.

Why is Russia so focused on Soledar?

After Russia’s several major retreats in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Kherson regions, Bakhmut in the Donetsk region became one of the main points of their attack. Since August 2022, Ukrainians have been restlessly defending the city from the invaders.

Soledar is located just a bit more than 10 kilometers north from Bakhmut. Taking over the town could possibly give Russian propaganda somewhat of a “victory” to work with after the major retreats. But mostly Russia sees it as a possible way to weaken the defense of Bakhmut.

Thousands of bomb craters in fields and along roads in and around the town of Bakhmut. January 7, 2023.
Photo: MAXAR

Institute for the Study of War, however, states in its report as of January 13, 2023, that Russian forces overexaggerated the importance of Soledar. “The capture of Soledar – a settlement smaller than 5.5 square miles – will not enable Russian forces to exert control over critical Ukrainian ground lines of communication into Bakhmut nor better position Russian forces to encircle the city in the short term.”

What was Soledar known for before the full-scale invasion?

Soledar is famous for its significant deposits of rock salt. Geologists working for the mine say less than 5% of the salt seam has been removed since operations began in 1881. The city’s name literally means “a gift of salt” and reflects the long history of salt production in the area. 

The state enterprise “Artemsil” worked there before the full-scale invasion. It was one of the biggest salt producers in Europe and exported its products to 20 countries. 

Several mines were turned into tourist spots. A special salt mine sanatorium treated skin or respiratory diseases. Visitors could enjoy an underground museum, salt sculptures and crystals, and even listen to the orchestra.

In 2014, when Russia started the war against Ukraine in 2014, the Russian proxies had seized Soledar. But in a few months it was liberated by Ukrainian defenders. Despite Russia thowing its massive forces at the town once again, Soledar was, is, and will be a Ukrainian city.