This “news” was weeks in the making, but this time it is official: the city of Soledar has been liberated by the Wagner PMC (with Russian Airborne Forces blocking the city from the North and South). Why did it take so much time?
First, just like the regular armed forces, the Wagner PMC engages in the economy of force tactics, meaning that they try to keep their own casualties to the absolute minimum while trying to degrade the enemy forces. In this case, the Ukronazis threw battalion after battalion into the Russian meat grinder with the hope of being able to maintain their control over Soledar.
It is quite clear that the Wagner PMC and the Russian military were more than happy to keep that going on. Some sources claim that NATO lost 14 battalions in a desperate attempt to avoid a Russian liberation. So even if we take only half of this figure, that is still seven battalions lost on the NATO side (note that the 14 battalions is a Ukie, not Russian, claim!).
Second, the Russians wanted to close a cauldron (the first cauldron of 2023!) without themselves risking envelopment. So they had to secure the flanks before they would move in.[Sidebar: I regularly get the same “question” by butt-hurt trolls: “where did all of your “cauldrons” go?” So for those who might ask this sincerely, I will reply here: they went nowhere :-). The entire NATO force in the Donbass still sits in an “open operational cauldron” meaning that they are under pressure from the North, East and South and have only one “safe(r)” direction for rotation and supplies: from the West. That western direction, however, is quite well known to the Russians, who have superb C4ISR capabilities, and so while NATO has been successful at using this direction to support the NATO group in the Donbass, they did that at a huge cost. These are the official, Russian MoD, figures for Ukrainian losses in 2022:
Now, of course, I hear the voices objecting “but this is Russian propaganda!!!“. Okay, let’s reduce these figures by 50%, fair enough? We still get 177 aircraft, 99 helicopters, 1397 UAVs, 199 SAMs, 3683 MBTs and other armored vehicles, 478 MLRS, 1881 artillery pieces and 3938 military vehicles. As for the KIA/MIA figures, they are in the hundreds of thousands. Most of that damage was done by artillery strikes, by the way, which, in spite of a truly massive NATO effort to win the counter-battery engagements, outcomes have shown that Russian artillery is simply better, in spite of the formidable NATO C3ISR capabilities. So, coming back to our “semi-open cauldrons” (i.e. open on three sides, with the fourth under Russian fire control), they gave the Russians a great deal of flexibility, in spite of the numerical inferiority of the Russian forces, to massively degrade NATO forces. Bottom line: the fact that western sources do not report a single word about these cauldrons does not mean they never existed or suddenly vanished]
Third, Soledar, like Mariupol, had formidable defenses made even stronger by eight years of preparations. Besides over 200km of tunnels and mines, Soledar has a very large “promka” (industrial zone) which made advances very difficult and dangerous (a similar situation to what took place in Mariupol). The Wagner folks took all their sweet time going in slow and saving their forces. As always, you cannot spot the degradation of the NATO defenses until they suddenly crumble, which is what happened in the last 24 hours.
According to several reports, the Ukronazi 46th airmobile brigade, one of the most elite Ukronazi units has been basically wiped out. This is also significant.
So what does this mean for the “big picture”?
By itself, not that much. Yes, NATO forces are in a cauldron inside Soledar, but they number only a few hundred soldiers and, just as in Mariupol, their commanders have run away (on the 8th, apparently). The mopping up of this small cauldron will not take much time or effort.
Here is, just to give you an idea of what is going on these days, a video of Polish soldiers near Artemovsk getting hit by Russian strikes:
Now imagine that happening along the entire frontline, especially in the Donbass.
The Russian liberation of Soledar does threaten the NATO positions in the city of Bakhmut/Artemovsk (the most advanced Russian units are 5km from the downtown center of the city!). I don’t like pseudo-military maps too much, but just to give you an idea of the area we are discussing, this one is adequate:
To understand that map, all you need to know is that Соледар is Soledar and Артемовск (Бахмут) means Artemovsk(Bakhmut). Though you might also want to look at the city indicated as Краматорск (top left) which is the NATO stronghold of Kramatorsk (famous in 2014-2015). BTW – can you spot more potential cauldrons on this map?
To make a long story short, the cities of Soledar and Artemovsk are located smack in the middle of the NATO defense lines. Their liberation means that NATO forces will have to fall back to what we can call their third or even fourth lines of defense.
The main headache for NATO now is that it is impossible to predict what the Russians will do next. In the next few days, they will have to mop up the small NATO force in the city center, then rotate troops and give them some rest. But after that, it is impossible to predict where the Russians will push next. Here are three main options:
- The Russians will seek the develop their success locally
- The Russians will launch their much-announced “Big Offensive”
- The Russians will continue to hold and grind more KIA/MIA into the ground
I do not have access to Russian plans, but I do not believe that the liberation of Soledar by itself will have a major impact on the planned “Big Offensive” the Russian forces are ready to execute. Yes, time is of the essence in warfare, but that means that, like in chess, sometimes that critical feature of time means that waiting is the correct use of that time. That being said, the liberation of Soledar will have a major effect on NATO supply lines, both on roads and railways.
Again, the idea here is to transform the once unified NATO forces into smaller “chunks” unable to help each other. By all signs, this has been an extremely effective Russian tactic.
Another location that NATO tried really hard to exploit is Kherson, yet all the NATO attacks failed and have now petered down to almost nothing (mostly UAV recon flight and regular artillery strikes). Ditto for the Kharkov oblast were Ukie attacks mostly stopped.
Finally, here is another important marker: the size of the NATO offensives. Remember how in the first months of the war the Ukrainian counter-attacks typically involved several brigades? Then much of what we saw were battalion-size attacks. Now, most of what we see are very small, company-level, engagements. Such, engagements are futile by definition: why bother with a company-level attack which, even if fully successful you won’t be able to develop even tactically, never mind operationally?
The ONLY reason for such attacks is optics and PSYOPs. Period.
The Russians won’t fight that way, because that way implies sending wave after wave after wave of bodies through into the Russian meat grinder for the sole purpose of taking a photo, making a video, or claiming another absolutely huge “peremoga” (all the NATO victories are huge, didn’t you know?). Right now the KIA/MIA ratio between NATO and Russia is roughly about 10:1 and that is exactly how the Russians like it, even if they now have several hundred thousand of soldiers in the South, East and North.
Simply put, NATO wants to fight Russia down to the last Ukrainian while Russia does not want to fight NATO down to the last Russian. This is why NATO fights with bodies and Russia with (mostly) artillery shells.
Conclusion: let’s not start acting like NATO and Ukie armchair generals and declare that the liberation of Soledar is a “huge” victory. It is, however, very good news as it strongly suggests that NATO’s first and second lines of defense have been breached forcing NATO to regroup. Could that be the “first crack” in the NATO defenses? Maybe, maybe not, we need to see how NATO will respond before coming to conclusions.
PS: interesting news today, seems that Putin has appointed the current chief of General Staff, General Gerasimov, as the head of all the Russian forces in the SMO, with Surovikin as his deputy. This is one more indicator that the “Big Offensive” will be launched sooner rather than later. Here is how the Russian MoD explained this appointment:
The increase in the level of leadership of a Special Military Operation is associated with the expansion of the scale of tasks solved during its implementation, the need to organize closer interaction between the types and branches of the Armed Forces, as well as improvement in the quality of all types of support and the effectiveness of the management of groups of troops (forces).
PPS: amazingly, even CNN is smelling the coffee this morning:
Here is the text posted under this headline:
A Ukrainian soldier fighting in the eastern town of Soledar told CNN that the situation is “critical” and the death toll is now so high that “no one counts the dead”.
The soldier is from the 46th airmobile brigade, which is leading Ukraine’s fight to hold onto Soledar in the face of a massive assault from Russian troops and Wagner mercenaries.
CNN is not identifying him for security reasons. “The situation is critical. Difficult. We are holding on to the last,” said the soldier said.”
He described a dynamic battlefield where buildings change hands daily and units can’t keep track of the escalating death toll. “No one will tell you how many dead and wounded there are. Because no one knows for sure. Not a single person,” he said. “Not at the headquarters. Not anywhere. Positions are being taken and re-taken constantly. What was our house today, becomes Wagner’s the next day.”
“In Soledar, no one counts the dead,” he added.
The soldier said it was unclear as of Tuesday night how much of the town was held by the Russians: “No one can definitely say who moved where and who holds what, because no one knows for sure. There is a huge grey area in the city that everyone claims to control, [but] it’s just empty hype.”
The Ukrainians have lost many troops in Soledar but the ranks are being replenished as the fight for the mining town continues, he said: “The personnel of our units has been renewed by almost half, more or less. We do not even have time to memorize each other’s call signs [when new personnel arrives].”
The soldier said that he believed Ukraine’s military leaders would eventually abandon the fight for Soledar and questioned why they hadn’t done this yet. “Everyone understands that the city will be abandoned. Everyone understands this,” he said. “I just want to understand what the point [in fighting house to house] is. Why die, if we are going to leave it anyway today or tomorrow?”
The 46th air mobile brigade said on its Telegram channel on Tuesday that the situation in Soledar was “very difficult, but manageable.”
In his nightly address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked the soldiers of the brigade “for their bravery and steadfastness in defending Soledar.”