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Ukraine says troops hold out in corpse-strewn battlefield of Soledar

2023-01-12T13:24:03Z

Russia ordered its top general on Wednesday to take charge of its faltering invasion of Ukraine in the biggest shake-up yet of its malfunctioning military command structure after months of battlefield setbacks. This report produced by Olivia Zollino.

Ukraine said on Thursday its troops were holding out despite heavy fighting on a battlefield littered with bodies in a salt mining town in eastern Ukraine, where Russian mercenaries have claimed Moscow’s first significant gain in half a year.

The ultra-nationalist contract militia Wagner, run by an ally of President Vladimir Putin outside the main chain of military command, claims to have taken Soledar after intense fighting that it said had left the town strewn with Ukrainian dead. But Moscow has held off officially proclaiming victory.

“At the moment, there are still some small pockets of resistance in Soledar,” Andrei Bayevsky, a Russian-installed local politician, said in an online broadcast.

Ukraine has acknowledged Russian advances but Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar told a briefing on Thursday that fighting was still fierce.

The Russians were “moving over their own corpses”, she said. Reuters was unable to independently verify the situation.

Malyar said Russia had increased the number of units in Ukraine to 280 from 250 in the past week as it seeks to regain the initiative.

Kremlin-watchers were poring over Russia’s latest switch of battlefield leadership, a day after Valery Gerasimov, chief of the military’s general staff, was unexpectedly given direct command of the invasion.

The previous commander of three months’ standing, Army General Sergei Surovikin, was effectively demoted to become one of Gerasimov’s three deputies.

Moscow explained the decision – at least the third abrupt change of top commander in the 11-month conflict – as a response to the campaign’s growing importance.

Russian and Western commentators alike saw attempts to shift blame for setbacks in which Russia has lost around 40% of the territory it had seized since February.

Gerasimov had become a target of abuse from nationalist bloggers, who have flourished even as the Kremlin has shut all independent media and jailed critics of the war.

“The move is likely to be greeted with extreme displeasure by much of the Russian ultra-nationalist and military blogger community, who have increasingly blamed Gerasimov for the poor execution of the war,” Britain’s Ministry of Defence said.

One prominent Russian military blogger who posts on the Telegram messaging app under the name of Rybar said Surovikin was being made a scapegoat for military debacles.

However, Mick Ryan, a retired Australian major general, suggested in a tweet that Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu had “set up Gerasimov as the fall guy for all of Russia’s failures”.

Semyon Pegov, another Russian military blogger, noted that “now the General Staff is directly and uncompromisingly responsible for absolutely everything”.

Ukraine’s defence ministry offered mockery. “Every Russian general must receive at least one opportunity to fail in Ukraine,” it tweeted. “Some may be lucky enough to fail twice.”

Soledar would be Moscow’s biggest gain since a series of humiliating retreats in the second half of 2022 – but at immense cost, with huge losses on both sides.

It had barely 10,000 inhabitants before the war. Russia has failed in repeated attempts to capture the far more important nearby city of Bakhmut, ten times as large.

Donetsk governor Pavlo Kyrylenko told Ukrainian state TV that 559 civilians remained in Soledar, including 15 children, and could not be evacuated.

Across Ukraine, the front lines have barely budged since Russia’s last big retreat in the south two months ago. Kyiv hopes heavy armour from Western allies will allow it to resume advances.

With the West upping the ante in a way that seemed unthinkable a few months ago, the United States, Germany and France last week pledged armoured fighting vehicles – and the focus has now shifted to main battle tanks.

Polish President Andrzej Duda, who was cheered in the Ukrainian city of Lviv on Wednesday, promised a company of 14 German-made Leopard battle tanks, part of what he called an international coalition.

Despite briefly seeming blindsided, Germany, whose permission would be required, on Thursday appeared to yield.

“Germany should not stand in the way of other countries taking decisions to support Ukraine, independent of which decisions Germany takes,” Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck said.

Britain has also said it is considering sending tanks.

Putin launched the invasion on Feb. 24, saying Kyiv’s ties with the West threatened Russia’s security. Ukraine and its allies call it an unprovoked war to seize territory.

In Kherson city, recaptured by Ukrainian forces in November, prosecutors said they were investigating at least 10 sites where Russian occupiers had tortured hundreds of Ukrainians.

Oksana Minenko, a 44-year-old accountant whose husband died defending the city on the war’s first day, told Reuters she had repeatedly been interrogated during occupation. Russians submerged her hands in boiling water, pulled out her fingernails and beat her in the face with rifle butts, she said last month.

“One pain grew into another,” she recounted, with scarring visible around her eyes from what she said was an operation to repair the damage. “I was a living corpse.”

Her account could not be independently verified. Moscow denies abusing civilians in occupied areas.

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A satellite view shows destroyed apartment buildings and homes, in Soledar, Ukraine, January 10, 2023. Satellite image ?2023 Maxar Technologies./Handout via REUTERS

Chief of the General Staff of Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov attends an annual meeting of the Defence Ministry Board in Moscow, Russia, December 21, 2022. Sputnik/Sergei Fadeichev/Pool via REUTERS

A tank fires a round, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Soledar, Donetsk region, Ukraine, in this screen grab released on January 8, 2023 and obtained from a social media video by Reuters on January 10, 2023. State Border Guard Service Of Ukraine/via REUTERS/File Photo

An elderly woman walks near debris of a destroyed building purported to be a vocational college used as temporary accommodation for Russian soldiers, dozens of whom were killed in a Ukrainian missile strike as stated previously by Russia’s Defence Ministry, in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict in Makiivka (Makeyevka), Russian-controlled Ukraine, January 10, 2023. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

Ukrainian members of the military fire an anti-aircraft weapon, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in the frontline city of Bakhmut, Ukraine, January 10, 2023. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Local residents remove debris and carry belongings out of a shop destroyed in recent shelling in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict in Donetsk, Russian-controlled Ukraine, January 10, 2023. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

Local resident Anatoly stands inside his house heavily damaged in recent shelling in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict in Donetsk, Russian-controlled Ukraine, January 10, 2023. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

A satellite view shows a smoldering building, in Soledar, Ukraine, January 3, 2023. Satellite image 2023 Maxar Technologies./Handout via REUTERS

Ukrainian army, of the 43rd Heavy Artillery Brigade fire a German howitzer Panzerhaubitze 2000, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, near Soledar, Ukraine, January 11, 2023. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

A satellite view shows a destroyed school and buildings in south Soledar, Ukraine, January 10, 2023. Satellite image 2023 Maxar Technologies./Handout via REUTERS

People in military uniform, claimed to be soldiers of Russian mercenary group Wagner and its head Yevgeny Prigozhin, pose for a picture believed to be in a salt mine in Soledar in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, in this handout picture released January 10, 2023. Press service of “Concord”/Handout via REUTERS

A satellite view shows apartment buildings and homes, in Soledar, Ukraine, August 1, 2022. Satellite image 2023 Maxar Technologies./Handout via REUTERS

Local residents remove debris and carry belongings out of a shop destroyed in recent shelling in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict in Donetsk, Russian-controlled Ukraine, January 10, 2023. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

Smoke rises from strikes on the frontline city of Soledar, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, as seen from Bakhmut, Ukraine, January 5, 2023. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

General view of railway lines, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in Siversk, Ukraine, January 9, 2023. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Local residents look through items at a site of the local market, heavily damaged by a Russian missile strike, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in the Shevchenkove town, Kharkiv region, Ukraine January 9, 2023. REUTERS/Sofiia Gatilova

Ukrainian servicemen stand next to a 2S3 Akatsiya self propelled howitzer at their position in a frontline, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Donetsk region, Ukraine January 8, 2023. REUTERS/Anna Kudriavtseva

Ukrainian firefighters work at the site of a local market, heavily damaged by a Russian missile strike, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in the Shevchenkove town, Kharkiv region, Ukraine January 9, 2023. REUTERS/Sofiia Gatilova

A firefighter works at a site of a market hit by Russian missiles, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in the town of Shevchenkove, Kharkiv region, Ukraine January 9, 2023. Governor of Kharkiv region Oleh Sunehubov via Telegram/Handout via REUTERS

People return to their shelters after gathering water, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in Siversk, Ukraine, January 9, 2023. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Olha, 60, resident of Soledar waits in a temporary sleeping accommodation before being transported to an evacuation train where she will get out in Dnipro, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, January 8, 2023. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

General view of damage from a strike, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in Siversk, Ukraine, January 9, 2023. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne