Russia has ordered its top general to assume command of the faltering invasion of Ukraine. This is Russia’s biggest overhaul of its dysfunctional military command structure, which was established after months of battle setbacks.
After suffering heavy losses, Russian forces tried to consolidate their control over the Soledar salt-mining community in east Ukraine. This was just a day after the Wagner contract militia leader declared that the town was now under Russian control.
After a string of retreats, Soledar is Russia’s largest gain since August.
Wagner is one of a few semi-autonomous Russian troops whose high battlefield visibility after more than 10 years of war has highlighted the ineffectiveness of Russia’s core army in a campaign that the Kremlin expected would end in days.
According to Russia’s Defence Ministry, Sergei Shoigu was appointed Defence Minister and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov the overall commander of troops for “special military operations” in Ukraine.
Gerasimov was held directly responsible for the outcome of the campaign. However, the move also degraded General Sergei Surovikin who has been nicknamed “General Armageddon”, by Russian media due to his notorious ruthlessness.
According to a ministry statement, “The rise in the leadership level for the special military operations is linked with the increase in the scope of tasks… The need to organize closer contact among different branches of armed forces and improve the quality… and effectiveness in the management of Russian troops.”
Russian pro-war commentators weren’t impressed.
One prominent blogger from the military, Rybar, posted on Telegram under the username Rybar: “The sum doesn’t change just by moving the parts of it.”
According to him, Surovikin was a Russian veteran of the campaigns in Chechnya, Syria and was now being blamed for several recent Russian military failures. This included a Ukrainian attack against a Russian barracks located in Makiivka, which resulted in at least 89 Russian soldiers including conscripts dying at the New Year.
After a series of Ukrainian offensives, Surovikin was named Russia’s top battle commander in Ukraine. This resulted in Surovikin being named Russia’s most senior battlefield commander.
On Wednesday, Ukrainian and Russian forces engaged in fierce fighting over Soledar. This was a stepstone in Moscow’s push to seize Ukraine’s whole Donbas area. However, the Russians appear to be in control.
Wagner, the spearhead of the attack, claimed Tuesday that he had taken control of the city, despite pockets of resistance from the Ukrainians remaining in the centre.
Russia’s Defence Ministry stated Wednesday that Soledar was cut off from both the north- and south by airborne units.
Ukraine denied the fall of the city, with a population prewar estimated at 10,000.
Telegram: Hanna Maliar (Deputy Defence Minister) wrote that heavy fighting continued in Soledar.
The enemy is trying to retake the city and replace its lost units and has also increased the number Wagner fighters. However, he is having difficulty.
Also, the Kremlin did not claim victory but acknowledged that there were many casualties.
Let’s be patient and wait for official statements. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson, said that there is a positive energy in the process.
Reuters could not independently confirm the current situation in Soledar. However, a Reuters photographer reached the outskirts of Soledar in recent days and found that many people had fled the area in the perishing cold.
According to her, smoke was visible rising above the town from the incoming artillery fire. She also said that there were constant ambulance fires and waiting for wounded along the road between Soledar and Bakhmut.
Russia targeted Soledar to strike Bakhmut nearby. Bakhmut has fought back for many months from a Russian attack and serves as an important supply point in eastern Ukraine.
Peskov repeated previous Kremlin statements, stating that Moscow prefers to reach its goals through diplomatic and political means. He said there wasn’t any immediate prospect for talks given the current positions of Ukraine, the West and all those calling for an unconditional Russian withdrawal. Russian statements regarding talks were dismissed by them as propaganda.
Vevgeny Prizhin, the head of the Wagner militia, was a close ally of President Vladimir Putin. He said Tuesday night that Wagner units had taken “the whole territory” in Soledar. However, fighting continued in Soledar’s centre.
Russian state news agency RIA claimed Wagner had overtaken Soledar’s salt mines. A photograph from Wagner’s Telegram channel seemed to show Prigozhin with his fighters in a mine.
Denis Pushilin is the leader of the Russian-held Donetsk. He said Soledar’s capture would allow the take of larger towns west of what Russia recognizes as the Donetsk People’s Republic. This republic, which has been centred on Ukrainian heavy industry, and one of four that Moscow claims it “annexed”, was claimed to be the fourth.
Michael Kofman, a U.S. analyst said that victory in Soledar would be costly for Russia. He also said on Twitter that Russia’s plans for a counter-offensive could be damaged and the situation would make Bakhmut more difficult to handle.
Russia sent thousands of troops to Ukraine in February 24, claiming that Kyiv’s close relations with NATO and its ambitions to become a NATO member threatened their security. Kyiv and allies have accused Moscow of waging an unprovoked military campaign to seize territory from a neighbour it used to control in the ex-Soviet Union.