February 2, 2023

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Ukrainian forces have withdrawn from Soledar after an intense battle

Ukrainian forces have pulled out of the small town of Soledar after weeks of bitter fighting, a military spokesman said on Wednesday, conceding a military win for Russian forces that brings them closer to encircling and possibly capturing the strategically important town of Bakhmut to the east.

Colonel Sergei Cherevaty, the spokesman for Ukraine’s Eastern Military Command, said the withdrawal from Soledar was ordered “to spare our personnel”.

“Russian forces spent colossal resources of life and equipment to take Soledar, while Ukraine was able to maintain its forces and avoid encirclement,” he said in an interview.

Soledar, which had a population of about 10,000 before the war, is six miles northeast of Bakhmut, a city in eastern Ukraine known as Donbass. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has attempted to fully conquer the Donbass, which includes two regions – Donetsk and Luhansk. Russian forces have both shelled Bakhmut and fought for the surrounding towns since last summer, aiming to secure high ground from which artillery can be deployed and also to cut off roads used by Ukraine to defend its troops to strengthen the city.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, the head of Ukraine’s military administration in Donetsk, which includes Soledar, said Tuesday that Russian forces had shelled a number of towns in the region, including Paraskoviivka, west of Soledar. One person died in that attack, he said.

Moscow has had a significant territory in Donbass since 2014, including two regional capitals. But since capturing two key cities in Luhansk last summer, Russia’s military advance in Donbass has been slow. Both Russian and Ukrainian forces have suffered heavy casualties from intense shelling and trench warfare. Soldiers have also had to endure bitter cold and mud in recent weeks.

The capture of Soledar marks a victory for the Kremlin, but also for Yevgeny V Prigozhin, founder of the private military company Wagner, which has spearheaded much of Russia’s struggle for Bakhmut. Mr Prighozin, a close ally of Mr Putin, has credited the battle for Bakhmut as a measure of his force’s effectiveness.

Wagner said earlier this month Soledar had fallen, and military experts have been saying since last week that Ukraine appears to have retreated. Wagner also said last week that it had taken the village of Klishchiivka, a few miles south of Bakhmut, in another sign of its progress in encircling the town. There was no comment from the Ukrainian military on this claim.

Russian forces are “already increasing pressure” on Bakhmut, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a speech late Tuesday, adding, “And they want to increase pressure on a larger scale.”