Apparent victory in salt-mining town comes at a high cost for Russia
recent days, the town of Soledar has become Ukraine's latest killing field.
Russian forces appear to have finally taken control of at least most of the practically annihilated community in the eastern Donbas region — but not before Ukraine's army exacted a heavy toll.
Both sides have made frequent and unverifiable claims of inflicting heavy casualties on the other, but Ukraine's Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar described the situation in especially harrowing detail.
"The enemy literally steps on the corpses of his own soldiers, massively uses artillery, volley fire systems and mortars, covering even its own soldiers with fire," she wrote on social media.
With unverifiable estimates from the Ukrainian side putting Russian losses over the past few weeks in the thousands of wounded or killed, the cost of capturing Soledar has been catastrophic for Russia, said Oleksiy Melnyk, a former Ukrainian Air Force lieutenant colonel who's now with the Razumkov Centre, a Kyiv-based think-tank.
"The Ukrainian military command [is] trying to kill as many newly mobilized Russians and mercenaries as possible," he told CBC News.
He says the heavy Russian losses validate Ukraine's efforts to cling to the town, despite its minimal strategic significance.
More broadly, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak said this week that over the past seven months that Russian forces fought in Soledar and in nearby Bakhmut, their losses have ranged between 10,000 and 20,000 men killed or wounded.
Melnyk said he believes the short-term Ukrainian goal is to try to exhaust the Russians to make it much more difficult for Russia's army of regular soldiers and mercenaries to mount subsequent offensives later this winter and spring — even though Ukrainian losses have been very high as well.
"[Both sides] are trying to prevent the other from conducting another offensive operation," Melnyk said.
Before Soledar became a battlefield objective, it was best known for being the site of a vast complex of tunnels used for mining salt.
Fanning out from the town for hundreds of kilometres underground, parts of the salt tunnel maze are accessible to the public, creating an unusual local tourist attraction.
Russia's primary target since the summer had been the nearby city of Bakhmut, roughly 10 kilometres away. But in late December, Russian mercenary forces from the Wagner Group — which had been spearheading the long, grinding head-on assault — instead turned their attack to the north and made Soledar the focus.
Melynk says the Wagner forces, which are controlled and paid for by Russian business tycoon Yevgeny Prigozhin, were determined to get President Vladimir Putin a victory no matter what the cost, to strengthen Prigozhin's influence with the Kremlin, and to embarrass rival commanders in Russia's Defence Ministry.
Taking excessive casualties was not a consideration, he said.
"We see how the Russians treat their mobilized men — they are not people," said Melnyk.
In September, Russia activated roughly 300,000 soldiers, most of whom are believed to have had some previous military experience, and sent roughly half immediately to Ukraine. The rest were held in reserve and given more training.
Melnyk says Ukraine's Defence Ministry expects Russia is preparing to send the remaining mobilized soldiers to the front, intending to restart offensive operations in Donbas after a succession of high-profile defeats in the fall and summer.
The re-appointment this week of Valery Gerasimov, Russia's top general and one of the key planners of last year's Feb. 24 invasion, as the senior commander in Ukraine is being seen as another sign that Russia is planning to forge ahead.
At the same time, Ukraine's forces have also been re-equipping and bolstering their divisions with modern Western-made equipment in anticipation of mounting their own counteroffensive.
Russia's recent losses in Bakhmut may force its commanders to redeploy troops from other areas, opening up possibilities for Ukraine to resume its attacks to regain Russian-occupied territory.
That's roughly the same tactic Ukrainian generals followed in the summer and fall, when Russia captured the Donbas city of Severodonetsk but at such a high cost that its army was unable to hold thousands of square kilometres of territory in Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts.
Melnyk says he expects the Ukrainian strategists are thinking similarly now.
"There are two different and simultaneous preparations on the front lines (northern and southern regions), and where the most favourable conditions occurred, then that will be the real (offensive)."
Nick Reynolds of the London-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) has been closely studying Russia's troop deployments, but he says it's not possible to know whether its newly mobilized troops will have enough training and equipment to go on the offensive.
"It's unlikely they could do that in great strength," he told CBC News in an interview.
"I think we're more talking about units that can hold the line or push forward incrementally."
Kyvi-based military analyst Oleh Zhdanov, a colonel in Ukraine's Air Force reserves, also doubts the introduction of Russia's mobilized recruits will be enough for its army to regain the initiative.
"They don't have time for proper preparation and modern armaments, and with every new wave of conscripts, the quality of the conscripts and the quality of the equipment will fall," Zhdanov told CBC News.
He sees the real value for the Kremlin in taking Soledar as mostly political, in that Russian propaganda outlets will use it to rally people to support the war — and to discourage reticent Western nations from sending weapons to Ukraine.
"They will say to the West that tomorrow we are ready to take Kyiv," said Zhdanov.
Reynolds, the RUSI analyst, said whereas he was unsure before, he now believes the advanced air defence systems provided by Western nations over the last month, including NASAMS and Patriot defence systems, indicate Western countries are prepared to keep helping Ukraine over the long term, which will prevent the conflict from turning into a stalemate.
"The Ukrainians are winning," he said.
On Saturday, the U.K. announced it would send 12 modern Challenger 2 battle tanks to Ukraine, and Poland has said it intends to send German-made Leopard 2 tanks — if the German government consents and agrees to send its own Leopards.
Ukraine says it needs hundreds of Western tanks if it is to take back all of the territory Russia has occupied since annexing Crimea in 2014.
Nonetheless, the attempt to hold Soledar and the relentless trench warfare in Bakhmut has been costly for Ukraine, too.
The Ukrainian government rarely discusses its casualty numbers, but Zhdanov, the Ukrainian military analyst, says dozens are dying around Bakhmut every day.
"I would say (the ratio of deaths) is one to eight, or one to 10," he told CBC News, which works out to roughly 50 or 60 Ukrainian combat deaths a day for every 500 or 600 Russians.
The latest United Nations estimate of civilian deaths in the war is now over three months old and likely severely undercounts the casualties.
The UN has said at least 6,100 Ukrainian civilians have died, but Zhdanov says he believes the real toll from Russia's constant aerial and missile bombardment of Ukrainian cities is likely more than 10 times that.