Fierce fighting continued around Bakhmut, Ukraine, on Monday, with Ukrainian forces sending reinforcements to counter relentless assaults by Russian paramilitaries trying to capture mines in the region.
Ukrainian officials said Monday that additional forces were being sent to Soledar, five miles northeast of Bakhmut, where the fighting has been particularly bloody.
“The enemy again made a desperate attempt to storm the city of Soledar from different directions and threw the most professional units of the Wagnerites into battle,” the Ukrainian military said in a statement.
Bakhmut has been the focus of Russian efforts for months, spearheaded by the Wagner Group — a quasi-state paramilitary group financed by Oligarch and Putin crony Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar said Monday that Wagner has thrown waves of troops at Soledar, despite a successful defense by Ukrainian forces.
“The enemy literally step over the corpses of their own soldiers, using massed artillery, MLRS systems and mortars,” she said.
As the Russian military has held its position — or even withdrawn — along much of the frontline in recent months, Wagner Group forces have continued to push for Bakhmut, a small town questionable strategic value in the northern part of the Donetsk province.
While a small number of regional supply lines run through Bakhmut, US intelligence believes that Prigozhin is attempting to capture salt and gypsum mines in the vicinity, according to a report last week from Reuters.
The oligarch has ties to several mining concerns on the African continent in countries where Wagner paramilitaries operate.
Prigozhin has acknowledged an interest in the mines, he’s claimed the so-called “underground cities” possess a military value.
“The cherry on the cake is the system of Soledar and Bakhmut mines, which is actually a network of underground cities,” Prigozhin said last week, mixing his dessert metaphors. “It not only [has the ability to hold] a big group of people at a depth of 80-100 meters, but tanks and infantry fighting vehicles can also move about.”
He described Bakhmut as “a serious logistics centre.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky descriped the situation in Soledar as “very difficult” Monday.
Repeated heavy shelling has caused many of the soldiers fighting around Bakhmut to dig in, with trenches and fortifications cutting across a landscape that’s been contested since Russia’s 2014 effort to control the eastern Donbas region.
A recent evacuee from Soledar told Reuters this week that tank battles had destroyed most of what had survived the artillery strikes.
“There isn’t one house left intact,” said Olha, 60. “Apartments were burning, breaking in half.”
“All of last week we couldn’t go outside. Everyone was running around, soldiers with automatic weapons, screaming,” she added.
Serhiy Cherevatyi, a spokesman for Kyiv’s military in the Donbas, described the fighting as “brutal and bloody” on Ukrainian TV. He said there’d been as many as 106 artillery strikes in one day.