KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian troops have led an organized retreat from a city in the eastern region of the Donbas, an official said Wednesday, in what amounted to a rare but modest battlefield triumph for Russia after a series of setbacks during the invasion that began nearly 11 months ago.
The Ukrainian army withdrew from the salt mining town of Soledar to “save the lives of its personnel,” Serhii Cherevatyi, a spokesman for the Ukrainian armed forces in the east, told The Associated Press.
The soldiers retreated to previously prepared defensive positions, he said. Russia claimed almost two weeks ago that its troops had taken Soledar, but Ukraine denied this.
Moscow has portrayed the battle for the city, not far from the city of Bakhmut in Donetsk province, as key to conquering the entire Donbas region of Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian forces for nearly nine years and controlled part of the territory before Russia entered the fray on a full scale. invasion.
Russian President Vladimir Putin cited the safety of ethnic Russians living in Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk province, which make up the Donbass, as justification for the invasion. Putin illegally annexed the Ukrainian provinces and two others in late September.
The withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from Soledar brings Russian troops one step closer to Bakhmut, but military analysts say the capture of the city is more symbolic than strategic. The fighting in eastern Ukraine has been largely in a stalemate for months.
The Ukrainian army has said that the fierce defense of Soledar and Bakhmut contributed to the tethering of Russian troops.
Many of the Russian troops around Soledar belong to the Wagner Group, a private Russian military contractor, and the fighting has reportedly been bloody.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has prioritized full control of the Donbas, where it has supported a separatist insurgency since 2014. Russia has taken most of Luhansk, but about half of Donetsk remains under Ukraine’s control.
“Russia is not reducing combat activity in Donbas and is leaving a scorched desert where the Russian army manages to advance,” Donetsk government leader Pavlo Kyrylenko said on state television.
By taking control of Soledar, Russian forces may be able to cut supply lines to Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut, although the strength of Ukraine’s new defensive positions was not known.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, said earlier this month that Soledar’s fall would not “constitute an operationally significant development and is unlikely to predict an imminent Russian encirclement of Bakhmut.”
The institute said Russian intelligence operations have overstated “the importance of Soledar,” a small settlement. It also argued that the long and difficult battle contributed to the exhaustion of the Russian armed forces.
Perhaps even more worrying for Moscow, Western military aid to Ukraine is now ramping up with the delivery of tanks.
Elsewhere, Russian forces have continued to shell Ukrainian areasespecially in the south and east.
Russian strikes injured 10 civilians in eastern Donetsk province on Tuesday, said Pavlo Kyrylenko, the province’s governor.
Five were injured when Russian shells slammed into apartment buildings, he said.
The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said Russian forces had carried out four missile strikes, 26 airstrikes and more than 100 attacks with missile salvo systems between Tuesday morning and Wednesday morning.
In addition to Donetsk, Russian attacks hit settlements in northeastern Kharkiv and Sumy, northern Chernihiv, easternmost Luhansk, southeastern Zaporizhzhia, and southern Kherson provinces.
A Russian shelling of a grocery store in the town of Beryslav in Kherson province left two people dead and three wounded on Wednesday, according to an online statement from the regional government.
On Tuesday, Russian shelling included 12 attacks on the regional capital, also called Kherson, damaging a maternity hospital, a school, a clinic, port buildings and residential buildings, the statement said.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyywho was a professional comedian and actor prior to his election in 2019 and has become an internationally recognized wartime leaderin the 11 months since Russia invaded its country, Wednesday turned 45.
His wife, first lady Olena Zelenska, said that although he is the same person she met at age 17, “something has changed: you smile a lot less now.”
“I wish you had more reasons to smile. And you know what it takes. We all do,” she tweeted.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine