The three consequences of the bloody Russian offensive in Soledar, in eastern Ukraine

Ukrainian military fire a 130 mm M-46 towed field gun at a front line, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, near Soledar, in the Donetsk region, Ukraine (Reuters) (UKRAINIAN ARMED FORCES /)

The battle for the city of Soledarin it eastern Ukraineit has been several days, in which the claims and counterclaims about whether Russia You now have full control of the area.

On the night of January 11, Soledar was, at best, under partial control of the group of wagner mercenariesaccording to an evaluation of the Institute for the Study of Warbased in United States, and the British Ministry of Defence.

But heavy Russian shelling on January 12 confirmed Ukrainian assessments that fighting for the city was still intense.

Regardless of the outcome, this particular battle – and several other developments surrounding it – is instructive for a broader understanding of where the war in Ukraine is and where it could go.

stand out three lessons in particular. First, even small territorial gains are enormously costly in manpower and material, and can only be achieved after protracted fighting that inflicts heavy losses on both sides and consumes vast resources. If Russia finally manages to capture Soledar, it will only do so after razing the city.

The control of Soledar will be, in any case, only a step towards the much greater prize of the proximity Bakhmut, one of the last large cities of the Donetsk province which has not been captured by Russia. Nevertheless, here Ukrainian forces are firmly in control. Even if Russia were to succeed with its efforts at Soledar, the foreseeable collapse of Ukrainian defenses in the Donetsk region or a strategic withdrawal are by no means foregone conclusions.

The second idea What can be gleaned from the battle for Soledar and the broader context in which it takes place is that both sides maintain maximalist goals and, in general, do not seem willing to work towards a negotiated solution. And this despite the recent meeting between the Russian and Ukrainian human rights commissioners, Tatiana Moskalkova and Dmytro Lubinets, in Ankara, in which another prisoner exchange was agreed and in which both parties agreed to continue their humanitarian dialogue.

From the Russian perspective, the massive attack on Soledar – and ongoing fighting elsewhere on the front line between Russian and Ukrainian forces in the Donetsk province – are extremely expensive in terms of troops and ammunition. They only make sense if the Kremlin’s goal remains the occupation of the four regions that Russia annexed after the bogus referendums in September.

FILE PHOTO.  Ukrainian servicemen fire an anti-aircraft gun, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in the front line town of Bakhmut, Ukraine.  January 10, 2023. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne
FILE PHOTO. Ukrainian servicemen fire an anti-aircraft gun, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in the front line town of Bakhmut, Ukraine. January 10, 2023. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne (CLODAGH KILCOYNE/)

As the fighting on the ground has intensified, so has it between the various Russian political factions. On the one hand, the assault on Soledar was led by forces of the Wagner group, headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Prigozhin may have been motivated, in part, by the prospect of access the nearby salt and gypsum mines. But he also used his apparent success on the battlefield to shore up his influence in Putin’s inner circle. He has spared no scathing criticism of the efforts of the Russian military’s top brass.

Although Prigozhin may win the battle against Soledar, has lost the most political battle when his close ally Sergei Surovikin – the main architect of the campaign to destroy critical Ukrainian infrastructure – was replaced on January 11 by the Russian chief of staff, Valery Gerasimov., as commanding general of the war in Ukraine. Gerasimov was the architect of the original Russian invasion in February of last year. So his appointment is another sign that Putin has not given up on his maximalist war aims.

This, in turn, raises the specter of lthe opening of a second front in the war. During a visit to the city of Lvivin western Ukraine, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, warned again of the dangers of an invasion from Belarus. In light of the recent intensification of defense cooperation between Moscow and Minsk and from the joint military exercises planned for the end of January, this remains a major threat to Ukraine.

The replacement of Surovikin by Gerasimov also comes at a time when the relentless campaign of drone and missile strikes against Ukraine appears to have ended, without achieving its goal. to break the defensive spirit of the Ukrainians. This may partly indicate the depletion of Russian arms and ammunition reserves.. But – along with the intensification of land battles in Donbas – it also indicates a renewed Russian focus on the ground war and the expectation of future territorial gains.

Putin’s changes in the military leadership also herald a probable Russian offensive, either just in Donbas or in Donbas and opening a second front from Belarus. Russia’s partial, albeit chaotic, mobilization took place in the autumn, and it has achieved the evacuation and redeployment of forces from Kherson in October.

This has provided the Kremlin with a significant reserve of manpower and the time needed to regroup forces and train and integrate newly mobilized troops. Coupled with the prevailing superiority of Russian artillery and air power, this will provide Gerasimov with a potential advantage in future offensives.

The third, long-term lesson is the need for more Western support. The commitment to send more air defense systems and combat vehicles to Ukraine is an important step. Once handed over, they also indicate that the West continues to strongly support Ukraine’s defense efforts and stands behind kyiv in its goal of restoring full territorial integrity.

But given the sometimes slow pace of Western deliveries, British, Polish, French and probably German military supplies are unlikely to influence the outcome of the current battle for Soledar.

Ultimately, the events of the past week in and around Soledar show that whatever the outcome of the current fighting, this is not a turning point. It is another clear indication that the war is going to be long and costly.

Article originally published by The Conversation, by Stefan Wolff, who is Professor of International Security at the University of Birmingham.

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