KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian forces conducted an organized retreat from a town in the eastern Donbas region, an official said Wednesday, in what amounts to a rare but modest battlefield triumph for Russia after a series of setbacks in its invasion that began nearly 11 months ago.
The Ukrainian army withdrew from the salt mining town of Soledar to “preserve the lives of the personnel”, Serhii Cherevatyi, spokesman for the Ukrainian 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 forces had taken Soledar, but Ukraine denied it.
Moscow has described the battle for the town not far from the city of Bakhmut in Donetsk province as key to capturing the entire Donbass region of Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian troops for almost nine years and controlled territory before the full scale of Russia. invasion.
Russian President Vladimir Putin cited the safety of ethnic Russians living in Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk province, which together form Donbass, as justification for the invasion. Putin illegally annexed Ukrainian provinces and two others at the end of September.
The withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from Soledar brings Russian forces closer to Bakhmut, but military analysts say the capture of the city is more symbolic than strategic. The fighting in eastern Ukraine remained mostly at an impasse for months.
The Ukrainian military said its fierce defense of Soledar and Bakhmut helped pin down Russian forces.
Many Russian troops around Soledar belong to the Wagner Group, a private Russian military contractor, and the fighting was reportedly bloody.
Since its invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has prioritized full control of Donbass, where it has supported a separatist insurgency since 2014. Russia has captured most of Lugansk, but about half of Donetsk remains under Ukrainian control.
“Russia is not reducing combat activities in the Donbass, leaving a scorched desert where the Russian army manages to advance,” Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko told state television.
Taking control of Soledar potentially allows Russian forces to cut Ukrainian forces’ supply lines in Bakhmut, although the strength of Ukraine’s new defensive positions is not known.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said earlier this month that the fall of Soledar would not mark “an operationally significant development and is unlikely to occur.” portends an imminent Russian encirclement of Bakhmut”.
The institute said Russian information operations have “exaggerated the importance of Soledar”, which is a small settlement. He also argued that the long and difficult battle contributed to the depletion of Russian forces.
Perhaps more worrying for Moscow, Western military aid to Ukraine is stepping up with the delivery of tanks.
Elsewhere, Russian forces continued to strike Ukrainian areasespecially in the south and east.
Russian strikes injured 10 civilians in the eastern province of Donetsk on Tuesday, said Pavlo Kyrylenko, the province’s governor.
Five were injured when Russian shells hit buildings, he said.
The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said Russian forces launched four missile strikes, 26 airstrikes and more than 100 attacks from rocket salvo systems between Tuesday morning and Wednesday morning.
In addition to Donetsk, Russian attacks hit settlements in the northeastern provinces of Kharkiv and Sumy, northern Chernihiv, far eastern Luhansk, southeastern Zaporizhzhia and southern provinces of Kherson.
On Wednesday, two people were killed and three others injured in the Russian shelling of a grocery store in the town of Beryslav, Kherson province, according to an online statement from the regional government.
Russian shelling on Tuesday included 12 attacks on the regional capital, also called Kherson, damaging a maternity hospital, school, clinic, port buildings and residential buildings, the statement said.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyywho was a professional comedian and actor before his election in 2019 and became an internationally recognized warlordin the 11 months since Russia invaded his country, turned 45 on Wednesday.
His wife, first lady Olena Zelenska, said that although he is the same person she met when she was 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 AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine