By Pavel Polityuk
KIEV, Ukraine (RockedBuzz via Reuters) – Ukraine said on Thursday its troops were still holding on despite heavy fighting on a body-covered battlefield in a salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine, where Russian mercenaries have claimed the Moscow’s first significant gain in six months.
The Russian ultranationalist Wagner mercenary group, led by an ally of President Vladimir Putin outside the normal military chain of command, said it took Soledar after days of intense fighting that left it littered with dead Ukrainians.
Moscow has so far refrained from proclaiming victory there. Ukraine acknowledged the Russian advances but said on Thursday its own garrison had not withdrawn.
“The fighting is fierce,” Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said in a briefing on Thursday, adding that the Russians were “moving on their own corpses.” RockedBuzz via Reuters was unable to independently verify the situation within Soledar.
Malyar said Russia had increased the number of units in Ukraine to 280 from 250 last week as it tries to gain the strategic lead.
Kremlin observers were trying to digest Russia’s latest change in battlefield leadership, one day after Valery Gerasimov, the army chief of staff, unexpectedly received direct command of the invasion. The previous commander, Sergei Surovikin, was effectively demoted to become one of Gerasimov’s three deputies.
Moscow explained the decision – at least the third abrupt change of command in the 11-month conflict – as a response to the growing importance of the campaign.
Both Russian and Western commentators have seen attempts to shift blame for months of setbacks that have seen Russia lose around 40% of the territory it had captured since February.
Chief of staff for more than a decade, Gerasimov had become a target of abuse by nationalist bloggers, many with hundreds of thousands of subscribers, who have thrived even as the Kremlin shut down all independent media and jailed its critics.
“The move is likely to be met with extreme displeasure by much of Russia’s ultra-nationalist and military blogger community, who have increasingly blamed Gerasimov for the war’s poor execution,” the British Defense Ministry said.
A prominent Russian military blogger who posts on the Telegram messaging app under the name Rybar said Surovikin was being made the scapegoat for recent military debacles.
Other analysts wondered whether it was Gerasimov who was being framed: “Have Putin and Defense Minister (Sergei) Shoigu finally put in place all the elements to set up Gerasimov as the scapegoat for all of Russia’s failures in the war?” tweeted Mick Ryan, a retired Australian major general.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry offered a tease: “Every Russian general must be given at least one opportunity to fail in Ukraine,” he tweeted. “Some may be lucky enough to fail twice.”
EXPENSIVE WINTER MUD BATTLES
If Russia can capture Soledar, it would be Moscow’s biggest gain after a series of humiliating retreats in the second half of 2022. But military experts say the cost has been disproportionate, after intense battles littered the freezing mud with bodies. .
Soledar had just 10,000 strong before the war, and Russia has failed in repeated attempts to capture the nearby much more important city of Bakhmut, ten times its size.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy scoffed at the notion that Russia’s gains represented a major victory.
“Now the terrorist state and its propagandists are trying to pretend that part of our city of Soledar – a city that has been almost completely destroyed by the occupiers – is allegedly some kind of conquest of Russia,” he said in a nightly speech.
Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Wednesday his forces captured all of Soledar and killed about 500 Ukrainian soldiers after heavy fighting, but the Kremlin was more cautious.
Donetsk governor Pavlo Kyrylenko told Ukrainian state TV that 559 civilians remained in Soledar, including 15 children, and could not be evacuated with the fighting going on.
UKRAINE HOPES FOR TANKS
Across Ukraine, front lines have hardly budged since Russia’s last major retreat in the south two months ago.
Kiev, which says it plans to kick out all Russian troops this year, hopes the arrival of heavy armor from its Western allies will allow it to resume its advance in the coming months.
Last week, the United States, Germany and France committed for the first time to supply armored fighting vehicles. This week, the focus has shifted to main battle tanks, a potentially dramatic shift in Ukraine’s capabilities.
Polish President Andrzej Duda, who received a hero’s welcome on the streets of the Ukrainian city of Lviv on Wednesday, broke a taboo by promising to deliver the first company of 14 German-made Leopard tanks, as part of what he described as an international coalition.
However, that requires permission from Germany, which says arms deliveries must be coordinated and added Wednesday it was unaware of any requests from its allies to send Leopardi to Ukraine. Britain has said it is considering sending tanks.
Putin sent tens of thousands of troops to Ukraine on Feb. 24, saying Kiev’s close ties with the West threaten Russia’s security. Kiev and its allies are calling it an unprovoked war to seize territory.
(Reporting by the RockedBuzz via Reuters offices; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Kevin Liffey)