KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian forces have conducted an organized retreat from a town in the eastern region of the Donbas, an official said Wednesday, in what is a rare but modest battlefield triumph for the Kremlin after a series of setbacks in its invasion that began almost 11 months ago.
The Ukrainian army retreated from the salt-mining town of Soledar to “preserve the lives of the personnel,” Serhii Cherevatyi, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s forces in the east, told The Associated Press.
The soldiers pulled back to previously prepared defensive positions, he said.
Moscow has portrayed the battle for Soledar, which lies near the city of Bakhmut, as key to capturing the entire Donbas.
The accomplishment takes the Russian forces a step closer to Bakhmut, but military analysts say capturing Soledar is more symbolic than strategic.
Ukraine’s military, which has held out in Soledar against a monthslong onslaught of superior Russian forces, has said its fierce defense of the eastern stronghold helped tie up Russian forces.
Russia claimed almost two weeks ago that it had taken Soledar, but Ukraine denied it.
Many of Russia’s troops around Soledar belong to the private Russian military contractor Wagner Group, and the fighting reportedly has been bloody.
Since its invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has prioritized taking full control of the Donbas — a region made up of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, where it has backed a separatist insurgency since 2014. Russia has seized most of Luhansk, but about half of Donetsk remains under Ukraine’s control.
Taking control of the town would potentially allow Russian forces to cut supply lines to Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut, though the strength of Ukraine’s new defensive positions was not known.
The Institute for the Study of War, a think tank in Washington, said earlier this month that the fall of Soledar wouldn’t mark “an operationally significant development and is unlikely to presage an imminent Russian encirclement of Bakhmut.”
The institute said Russian information operations have “overexaggerated the importance of Soledar,” which is a small settlement. He also argued that the long and difficult battle has contributed to the exhaustion of Russian forces.
Perhaps more worrying for Moscow, Western military aid for Ukraine is now being stepped up with the delivery of tanks.
Elsewhere, Russian forces have continued to pummel Ukrainian areas, especially in the south and east.
Russian strikes wounded 10 civilians in the eastern Donetsk province on Tuesday, Pavlo Kyrylenko, the provincial governor, said.
Five were wounded when Russian shells slammed into apartment blocks, he said.
The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said Wednesday that over the previous 24 hours Russian forces had launched four missile strikes, 26 airstrikes and more than 100 attacks from rocket salvo systems.
Russian forces are concentrating their efforts on establishing control over Donetsk province, conducting offensive operations around the embattled cities of Bakhmut, Lyman and Avdiivka, and the village of Novopavlivka, according to spokesperson Oleksandr Shtupun.
In addition to Donetsk, the Russian attacks struck settlements in the country’s northeastern Kharkiv and Sumy, northern Chernihiv, easternmost Luhansk, southeastern Zaporizhzhia, and southern Kherson provinces.
Meanwhile, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukraine president who has gone from professional comedian to an internationally recognized wartime leader, turned 45 Wednesday.
His wife, first lady Olena Zelenska, said that though he is the same person as when they met at 17, “Something has changed: You smile much less now.”
“I wish you to have more reasons for smiling. And you know what it takes. We all do,” she wrote in a tweet.
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