Kyiv, Ukraine – To analysts, if Moscow is able to capture Soledar, a tiny salt-mining town in Ukraine’s war-scarred southeast, the “victory” would be little more than a consolation prize for Russia’s failing military effort.
To the Kremlin and pro-Moscow separatists, though, taking the town with a pre-war population near 10,000 would be a groundbreaking triumph.
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And to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Russia’s Wagner Group, a private army, Soledar offers access to mineral riches, a stash of firearms and a higher place in the Kremlin’s pecking order.
Prigozhin is known as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “chef” after becoming rich from government contracts to feed soldiers, schoolchildren and guests at state banquets.
For months, he has been trying to seize the nearby city of Bakhmut – an important logistical hub whose takeover would allow Russian and separatist forces to advance deep into southeastern Ukraine.
Despite countless attacks, shelling and a reported loss of thousands of soldiers, including fighters who were recruited from Russian jails, freshly mobilised reservists and forcibly conscripted men from separatist-held Ukrainian areas, the Wagner Group has failed to decisively take Bakhmut.
This setback is especially humiliating after a months-long series of Russian defeats and retreats in eastern and southern Ukraine that have highlighted what some observers view as disorganised, badly coordinated and poorly motivated Russian forces.
So Moscow needs a victory – if not a strategic one, then at least something that can be trumpeted on Kremlin-controlled television networks and reported to Putin.
“There is a propaganda viewpoint – if Bakhmut [can’t be taken], then they need to show at least something because Prigozhin promised it to Putin,” Lieutenant General Ihor Romanenko, former deputy chief of the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, told Al Jazeera.
The “encircling” of Soledar was reported late on Tuesday and presented as a deed solely achieved by the Wagner army.
“I’d like to emphasise again that no other military units except the Wagner fighters [took] part in the storming of Soledar,” Prigozhin told the Kremlin-funded RIA Novosti news agency.
His press service then released photos allegedly taken in the salt mines under Soledar.
Ukraine’s military denied his claims.
Soledar’s takeover “is not true”, spokesman Serhiy Cherevatyi told Al Jazeera. “Wait for a detailed report by the armed forces.
The press service of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence said the photos had actually been taken in Volodymyrivka, a separatist-controlled town in the eastern region of Donetsk.
And Prigozhin’s words about the exclusive role of his army were even disputed by the Russian Ministry of Defence, which said on Wednesday that its paratroopers had “blocked” Soledar’s south and north and were engaged in fighting in the town’s centre.
The Kremlin urged caution.
“Let’s not rush. Let’s wait for official announcements,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said while describing a “positive dynamic in advances” in Soledar.
Meanwhile, a separatist leader hailed Soledar’s “takeover” as a step towards gaining full control of Donetsk, parts of which have been occupied by pro-Moscow rebels since 2014.
“This is a groundbreaking moment,” Denis Pushilin told the NTV television network. “We are preparing the moment we’ve been waiting for, the liberation of the ‘People’s Republic of Donetsk’.”
To other pro-Kremlin Russians, Soledar is a devastating Ukrainian loss of manpower and a personal defeat for Kyiv’s commander-in-chief, Valerii Zaluzhnyi.
“Zaluzhny never counted losses anyway, but here, he exceeded himself by herding thousands of soldiers to die or be captured,” Herman Kulikovsky, a popular Russian military analyst, wrote on Telegram on Wednesday.
“Actually, the Wagner troops didn’t just destroy a significant part of Ukrainian forces who attempted to keep Soledar but also distracted a part of the forces, reserves and – most importantly – the attention of Ukraine’s General Staff from other front lines,” he wrote.
“If there is no Soledar, there is no Ukraine,” pro-Kremlin publicist Zakhar Prilepin said on Telegram.
The town is certainly key to seizing Bakhmut.
But what’s under and around it also offers an explanation as to why Wagner’s Prigozhin is so desperate to control the town and monopolise its takeover in the eyes of the Kremlin.
The salt mines under Soledar contain a major military prize, huge depots of firearms dating back to World War II.
Salt absorbs water and prevents rust, and Moscow began loading the mines with Nazi trophy weaponry and hundreds of thousands of Soviet small arms in the late 1950s, according to Nikolay Mitrokhin, a historian with Germany’s Bremen University.
“That’s why the Ukrainian military deployed a battalion of special forces there in the spring of 2014 and defended the mines from the Donetsk [separatist] militias thronging at the gates,” he told Al Jazeera.
The depot may not have been fully evacuated because its lift cannot bring more than a dozen crates to the surface at a time, he said.
Soledar’s salt could be just as valuable.
The town, whose name means “a gift of salt”, once provided up to 40 percent of the Soviet Union’s edible salt.
Before the war, it supplied about 90 percent of salt in all of Ukraine, and hostilities around the town caused a spike in prices.
The town’s environs are also rich in alabaster, valuable clay for ceramics and coal.
And Prigozhin is known for having business interests that go far beyond maintaining a private army.
His fighters are understood to have cut their teeth in Syria, helping President Bashar Assad regain most of the war-torn nation.
Then Evro Polis, a company Prigozhin controls, signed a deal to develop Syrian oil- and gasfields and restore energy infrastructure, according to Russian and Western media reports.
Some Wagner units relocated to the war-scarred Central African Republic and helped Prigozhin gain control of the lucrative trade in “blood diamonds”, according to the France-based All Eyes on Wagner research group.
Apart from Soledar, the southeastern region of Donbas is Ukraine’s treasure trove of mineral riches, metallurgical and chemical plants.
“Donbas is rich in raw materials, and its industrial complex could also be utilised,” Aleksey Kushch, a Kyiv-based analyst, told Al Jazeera.
“I think a far more valuable prize is at stake – a place in Russia’s political hierarchy,” Kushch said, referring to Prigozhin’s ambitions to gain more clout within the Kremlin.