Fierce fighting was raging on Monday around the heavily contested city of Bakhmut, Ukrainian and Russian officials said, with claims and counter claims swirling about potential Russian advances on the key battlefront in eastern Ukraine.
Russian forces have sought to take Bakhmut since the summer, even while sustaining significant territorial losses elsewhere in Ukraine. As the city has become the epicenter of one of the war’s bloodiest campaigns, “Hold Bakhmut” has emerged as a rallying cry in Ukraine, Russian troops have fought to encircle Bakhmut by gaining control of nearby towns and villages. including Soledar, which lies along the front line to the northeast.
But the fight for Soledar has gone on since last summer, allowing Ukrainian forces to dig defensive positions in the area, and analysts say that even if it were to fall to Russian forces, it would not necessarily mean that Bakhmut’s collapse would be next. As the fighting in the east narrows to smaller slivers of territory, and Ukraine commits more troops to defend key cities, each mile of ground will be hard won.
“Recent Russian gains in Soledar do not portend an imminent encirclement of Bakhmut, contrary to claims made by Russian sources,” the Institute for the Study of War, a research group based in Washington, said over the weekend. It called talk of Russia encircling Bakhmut “bizarre” given the slow pace of Moscow’s advance and the strength of Ukraine’s defense.
On Monday morning, pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine claimed that they had captured Bakhmutske, a village northeast of Bakhmut and adjacent to Soledar. A Telegram channel associated with the Donetsk People’s Republic, a Russian proxy entity, posted a statement claiming that the advance would allow Russian troops to “gain a foothold in the direction of Soledar,” which lies about six miles northeast of Bakhmut.
Later on Monday, the commander of Ukraine’s land forces, Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, said that fighters belonging to Russia’s Wagner paramilitary group — which has led Moscow’s campaign for Bakhmut for months — had attempted to storm Soledar from multiple directions but were repelled.
If Russian forces capture Soledar, it would mark their most significant advance in Ukraine in months. On Monday, several pro-invasion Russian bloggers — an influential group that closely follows the war — trumpeted what they said would be an imminent collapse of the Ukrainian front lines around Soledar and Bakhmut. Ukraine’s days in Soledar “were numbered,” Yuri Podolyaka, a popular blogger, wrote in a post on Telegram, the social messaging app.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group, had warned last week against jumping to conclusions, saying that his group would be the first to announce publicly if Soledar had been captured. On Monday, he emphasized that his forces were the ones fighting to take Soledar — a comment that served to highlight the distinction with Russia’s regular army, which has faced recent setbacks on multiple fronts in the war — and were engaged in “fierce battles for the city administration building.”
Serhii Cherevatyi, a spokesman for the eastern group of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, said that “fierce battles” were taking place in the Soledar area and that Russian forces had launched 106 attacks in the area the previous day. But he maintained that Soledar was “under constant control” of Ukrainian forces.
“Direct measures are being taken to prevent the enemy from advancing further, and systematic strikes are being carried out by our side,” he said, adding that additional troops had been sent to the area.
In his nightly address on Sunday, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said that “Soledar is holding out,” but acknowledged the difficulties facing Ukrainian troops fighting in the area, which he called “one of the bloodiest places on the front line.”
“Bakhmut is holding out against all odds,” he added. “And although most of the city is destroyed by Russian strikes, our warriors repel constant attempts at Russian offensives there.”
Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting.