Russia said Thursday that its forces are edging closer to capturing a salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine, which would mark an elusive victory for the Kremlin but come at the cost of heavy Russian casualties and extensive destruction of the territory they claim.
More than 100 Russian troops were killed in the battle for Soledar over the past 24 hours, Ukraine’s Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said in televised remarks.
“The Russians have literally marched on the bodies of their own soldiers, burning everything on their way,” Mr. Kyrylenko said while reporting that Russian forces had shelled a dozen towns and villages in the region in the past day.
Russian forces are using mortars and rockets to bombard Soledar in an unrelenting assault, struggling for a breakthrough after military setbacks have turned what the Kremlin hoped would be a fast victory into a grinding war of attrition that has dragged on for nearly 11 months with no end in sight.
“Civilians are trying to survive amid that bloodbath as the Russians are pressing their attacks,” Mr. Kyrylenko said. Serhii Cherevatiy, a spokesman for Ukraine’s forces in the east, said Soledar was hit by Russian artillery more than 90 times in the past day.
Analysis: Russia’s military shuffle shows Putin still in charge, and is doubling down on his Ukraine invasion
Soledar’s fall would be a prize for a Kremlin starved of good battlefield news in recent months, after losing the significant city of Kherson in December. It would also offer Russian troops a springboard to conquer other areas of the eastern Donetsk province that remain under Ukrainian control, particularly the nearby strategic city of Bakhmut.
The Russians’ tactic in the assault on Soledar is to send one or two waves of soldiers, many from the private Russian military contractor Wagner Group who take heavy casualties as they probe the Ukrainian defences, a Ukrainian officer near Soledar told the Associated Press. When Ukrainian troops suffer casualties and are exhausted, the Russians send in another wave of highly-trained soldiers, paratroopers or special forces, to get a new toehold on the battlefield, said the Ukrainian officer, who insisted on anonymity for security reasons.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov praised the “selfless and courageous action” of Russian troops, which he said is helping them to press forward in Soledar.
“Gigantic work has been done in Soledar,” he said.
Mr. Peskov, however, stopped short of confirming a claim by Wagner Group owner Yevgeny Prigozhin, who boasted about capturing Soledar on Wednesday.
“There is still a lot to be done and it’s too early to stop and rub our hands, the main work is still ahead,” he said in a conference call with reporters.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, Hanna Malyar, said at a briefing Thursday: “The enemy continues the assaults, but suffers significant losses and is not successful.”
The AP was unable to verify the claims made by either side.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed that the troops defending Soledar “will be guaranteed ammunition and everything necessary.”
In a video address, Mr. Zelensky on Thursday thanked two units in Soledar that he said “are holding their positions and inflicting significant losses on the enemy.” He did not give more details.
Mr. Zelensky said he and senior Ukrainian commanders analyzed the need for reinforcements in Soledar and nearby towns in the eastern industrial area known as the Donbas and next steps for the coming days.
Russia’s Defence Ministry made no mention of Soledar in its daily briefing on Thursday. The ministry announced Wednesday that the country’s top military officer – the chief of the military’s General Staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov – was put in charge of the military operation in Ukraine. He replaces General Sergei Surovikin, who was demoted to deputy only three months after he was installed in that job.
Ukrainian officials also said they were taking note of personnel changes at the top levels of the Russian military command, describing them as a sign that Moscow isn’t achieving what it had hoped.
“Personnel changes would not occur with such frequency if they were doing well,” a senior Ukrainian military official, brigadier-general Oleksiy Hromov, said.
Fighting continued elsewhere in Ukraine.
The deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, reported Thursday that two civilians were killed and a further eight were wounded in Russian attacks on Wednesday.
Citing data from regional officials, Mr. Tymoshenko said that one civilian died and five were wounded in the southern Kherson province, where shells hit a maternity hospital, private houses and apartment buildings, while one person was killed in Donetsk.
Two people were wounded in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia province, with one further civilian sustaining injuries in the southeastern Dnipropetrovsk province.
At the United Nations, Ukraine’s First Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzhaparova told the Security Council that Ukraine will seek a general assembly vote on a resolution supporting Mr. Zelensky’s 10-point peace formula that includes the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the Russians’ withdrawal. The plan that Mr. Zelensky presented to the Group of 20 meeting in Bali, Indonesia in November also includes the release of all prisoners, a tribunal for those responsible for the Russian aggression, and security guarantees for Ukraine.
Russia on Thursday released a U.S. citizen who had crossed into its Kaliningrad exclave in the first weeks of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine last February, former U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson, who met the man at the border in Poland, said in a statement.
U.S. Navy veteran Taylor Dudley, 35, was backpacking in Europe when he crossed the Polish-Russian border in April, Jonathan Franks, a lawyer who represents families of Americans detained overseas, said in an e-mail to reporters.
Mr. Dudley’s circumstances while in Russia were unclear and his case had not been previously publicized.
The U.S. State Department was aware of reports that an American citizen had been deported from Russia, said a spokesperson who declined to comment further on the case, citing privacy considerations.
Russia’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for the Polish foreign ministry declined to comment on the case.
Mr. Dudley’s release at the Bagrationovsk-Bezledy border crossing comes as relations between Moscow and Washington remain fractured after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began Feb. 24, 2022.
WNBA star Brittney Griner was released by Russia last month in a swap for Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout after talks between U.S. and Russian officials, but former Marine Paul Whelan remains in a Russian prison camp.
Mr. Richardson, a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and former New Mexico governor who has helped free Americans detained abroad, met Mr. Dudley at the border and worked on the case for months, according to attorney Mr. Franks and a statement from the Richardson Center for Global Engagement.
“The negotiations and work to secure Taylor’s safe return were done discreetly and with engagement on the ground in both Moscow and Kaliningrad and with full support from Taylor’s family back in the United States,” the Richardson Center said.
A U.S. embassy representative in Warsaw was also present at Mr. Dudley’s release, according to Mr. Franks, and the Richardson Center thanked U.S. officials, as well as businessman Steve Menzies, for helping secure Mr. Dudley’s return.
Kaliningrad is a Russian province sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania and is the headquarters of the Russian navy’s Baltic Fleet.