The small city of Soledar in eastern Ukraine has become a focal point of fierce fighting in recent days, part of a broader push in the Bakhmut area that Russia sees as important to achieving its goal of occupying all of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
While the area is still highly contested, many have asked how a tiny city became such a focus. Even in his overnight address, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine mentioned Soledar, and said: “What did Russia want to gain there?”
The most critical factor is perhaps not what Russian forces hope to gain in Soledar, but rather what a mercenary group fighting on the front there has to gain in terms of reputation if it manages to seize the city. In Bakhmut, the Wagner Group, the private military contracting company that has recruited prisoners into its ranks, has become the main force leading the offensive for Russia, and the fighting has become bloodier.
Russian forces and the Wagner Group are likely now in control of most of Soledar after intense fighting over the past four days, Britain’s defense ministry said in its daily intelligence update on Tuesday. The capture of the city, which is about six miles north of the city of Bakhmut, is likely to be part of “an effort to envelop Bakhmut from the north, and to disrupt Ukrainian lines of communication,” the update said.
Mr. Zelensky said that the fighting in Soledar was “extremely difficult” for Ukrainian forces, but that their resilience had “gained additional time and additional power for Ukraine.” “Everything is completely destroyed — there is almost no life left,” he said.
The Ukrainian leader also said that thousands of fighters on Russia’s side had been killed there. “The whole land near Soledar is covered with the corpses of the occupiers and scars from the strikes,” he said. “This is what madness looks like.”
The tactics employed by the Wagner Group have resulted in a high number of casualties. In recent days, reporters for The New York Times embedded with a Ukrainian drone crew on the front line saw the bodies of Russian fighters scattered across open ground in the area around Bakhmut. Images and videos on Ukrainian social media in recent days also appear to have come from these aerial reconnaissance missions and show similar scenes.
Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a caterer and businessman who now leads the Wagner Group and is a close associate of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, is thought to want a victory in Bakhmut to boost his own political standing at home. The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research group, noted in an analysis on Monday that Mr. Prigozhin “continues to use reports of Wagner Group success in Soledar to bolster the Wagner Group’s reputation as an effective fighting force.”
Mr. Prigozhin has emphasized that the group is the only Russian force fighting in Soledar, although Ukrainian officials and the Russian military say that Wagner is not the only group fighting for the city on Moscow’s behalf.
In a statement on Tuesday, Mr. Prigozhin said that Ukrainian forces were putting up a strong fight for Soledar and for Bakhmut.
Some Ukrainian messaging around the battle for Soledar on Tuesday appeared to suggest that losing control of the city to Russian forces would not be a major setback. Mr. Zelensky emphasized the importance of his forces’ broader goal of retaking the eastern Donbas region.
“The result of this difficult and long battle will be the liberation of our entire Donbas,” he said in his overnight address.
The larger battle is the fight for Bakhmut. For Russia, capturing it would be the most significant success in months.