Ukraine said on Thursday its troops were holding out against a massive onslaught of Russian artillery to defend the salt mining town of Soledar in the east, with drone footage showing utter devastation there and buildings reduced to smouldering husks.
“The goal of the enemy is to break through the defence of our troops and capture the city… Our soldiers bravely hold their positions and inflict numerous losses on the enemy,” Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malya said on Telegram.
Russia’s ultra-nationalist contract militia Wagner, run by an ally of President Vladimir Putin, claims to have taken Soledar after intense fighting that it said had left the town strewn with Ukrainian dead.
Moscow however, has held off officially proclaiming a victory which would be its first significant gain in six months.
“At the moment, there are still some small pockets of resistance in Soledar,” Andrei Bayevsky, a Russian-installed local politician, said in an online broadcast.
A 24-year-old Ukrainian soldier, positioned outside Soledar, said: “The situation is difficult but stable. We’re holding back the enemy … we’re fighting back.”
Serhiy Cherevatyi, spokesperson for Ukraine’s eastern military command, told Ukrainian TV Soledar had been hit by 91 episodes of artillery shelling within 24 hours.
Drone footage obtained by Reuters of a medical evacuation from the town by Ukrainian soldiers showed deserted streets where just a few ruined buildings remained standing, flanked by blasted trees, and amid smouldering piles of rubble.
Ukraine has acknowledged Russian advances but Malyar said fighting was still fierce and Russians were “moving over their own corpses”.
Reuters was unable to independently verify the situation.
Soledar lies less than 10 km (6 miles) northeast of the city of Bakhmut where fighting has raged for months in one of the war’s bloodiest battles – dubbed the “meat grinder”.
If Russia was able to capture Soledar, it would likely be able to use that position to intensify its assault on Bakhmut. Soledar is also home to cavernous salt mines, which could be a commercially lucrative asset.
Donetsk governor Pavlo Kyrylenko told Ukrainian state TV that 559 civilians remained in Soledar, including 15 children, and could not be evacuated.
With fighting on Ukraine’s eastern front as attritional as ever, Kremlin-watchers were poring over Russia’s latest switch of battlefield leadership, a day after Valery Gerasimov, chief of the military’s general staff, was unexpectedly given direct command of the invasion.
The previous commander of three months’ standing, Army General Sergei Surovikin, was effectively demoted to become one of Gerasimov’s three deputies.
Moscow explained the decision – at least the third abrupt change of top commander in the 11-month conflict – as a response to the campaign’s growing importance.
Russian and Western commentators alike saw attempts to shift blame for setbacks in which Russia has lost around 40% of the territory it had seized since February.
A delegation headed by the commander of Russia’s ground forces, Oleg Salyukov, visited Belarus on Thursday to inspect the combat readiness of a joint force stationed there, the Belarusian defence ministry said.
Salyukov was named as one of the deputy commanders of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine in the reshuffle.
Russia and its close ally Belarus have beefed up their joint military grouping in the country and plan to hold joint aviation drills there from next Monday.
For now, northwest Ukraine’s border with Belarus is a landscape of burst river banks, thick mud and waterlogged fields, making the prospect of a Russian assault from there unlikely for now despite recent warnings from Kyiv.
Across Ukraine, the front lines have barely budged since Russia’s last big retreat in the south two months ago. Kyiv hopes heavy armour from Western allies will allow it to resume advances.
With the West upping the ante in a way that seemed unthinkable a few months ago, the United States, Germany and France last week pledged armoured fighting vehicles – and now the focus has shifted to main battle tanks.
Polish President Andrzej Duda promised Ukraine a company of 14 German-made Leopard battle tanks, part of what he called an international coalition.
Despite briefly seeming blindsided, Germany, whose permission would be required, on Thursday appeared to yield.
“Germany should not stand in the way of other countries taking decisions to support Ukraine, independent of which decisions Germany takes,” Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck said.
Britain has also said it is considering sending tanks.
Putin launched the invasion on Feb. 24, saying Kyiv’s ties with the West threatened Russia’s security. Ukraine and its allies call it an unprovoked war to seize territory.
In Kherson city, recaptured by Ukrainian forces in November, prosecutors said they were investigating at least 10 sites where Russian occupiers had tortured hundreds of Ukrainians.
Oksana Minenko, a 44-year-old accountant whose husband died defending the city on the war’s first day, told Reuters she had repeatedly been interrogated during occupation. Russians submerged her hands in boiling water, pulled out her fingernails and beat her in the face with rifle butts, she said last month.
“One pain grew into another,” she recounted, with scarring visible around her eyes from what she said was an operation to repair the damage. “I was a living corpse.”
Her account could not be independently verified. Moscow denies abusing civilians in occupied areas.