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At Soledar, the Battle of the Damned

Recruited convicts become the face of Russia’s war while the world rallies for more aid to Ukraine.
January 20, 2023
At Soledar, the Battle of the Damned
DONETSK OBLAST, UKRAINE - JANUARY 19: Ukrainian soldiers practice with a mortar on the Donbass frontline as military mobility continues within the Russian-Ukrainian war, on January 19, 2023. (Photo by Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

January 18 was an anxiously anticipated day in Ukraine, with reports that Vladimir Putin—scheduled to appear in his native St. Petersburg at a memorial event for the 80th anniversary of Soviet troops breaking the German siege of the city, then called Leningrad—was likely to make a major announcement, perhaps the start of a new round of mobilization or possibly a declaration of war against Ukraine. (Nearly one year on, Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine is not a formally declared war.) As it turned out, the wait ended anticlimactically. Putin said nothing new: He declared that victory in Ukraine was inevitable and claimed that the goal of this operation was to stop a war—one waged by “Ukrainian neo-Nazis” against ethnic Russians in the Donbas. All that was just the reiteration of standard Russian propaganda tropes.

Still, there is a widespread sense that the war may be nearing a new turning point. After months of being stalled, Russian troops are undertaking offensive moves in several areas in the Donbas, so far with limited success except for the apparent capture of the small salt-mining town of Soledar—which, depending on whom you listen to, is either a key to further strategic operations or a completely insignificant token prize. While Ukrainian forces may still be fighting on the outskirts of the town, Soledar (prewar population circa 10,000), this does appear to be the first time Russia has taken new territory in Ukraine since last July. Russian television has latched onto the triumph, touting Soledar’s salt mines—the largest in Europe—and the route to still-embattled Bakhmut and more territory in the Donetsk region. But outside the propaganda bubble, this fairly modest Russian success was overshadowed by reports of Kremlin infighting and power struggles, largely related to the Soledar operation itself.

Aside from the predictable Russia/Ukraine information wars on whether Soledar had been captured, bizarre conflicting reports emerged on the Russian side. A January 11 Telegram post from the press service of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the multimillionaire restaurateur who owns the notorious Wagner private military company and has been recruiting convicts to fight in its ranks, stated that Wagner fighters were in control of Soledar (which Ukrainians immediately disputed) and stressed that “no units other than the fighters of PMC Wagner were involved in the storming of Soledar.” Two days later, the Russian Defense Ministry made its own announcement that Soledar had been taken by Russian rocket and artillery troops, with no mention of Wagner.

This coincided with a reshuffling in top command posts that seemed to be a deliberate slap in the face to Prigozhin. On January 10, Colonel-General Aleksandr Lapin, who had been sacked last October as commander of Russia’s Central Military District after Prigozhin and other war hawks blasted his performance in Ukraine, was appointed chief of staff of the country’s ground forces. Two days later, the day before Prigozhin trumpeted his men’s alleged capture of Soledar, Sergei Surovikin—a.k.a. “General Armageddon,” the war hawks’ and in particular Prigozhin’s favorite—was demoted as commander of the “special operation” in Ukraine. His replacement: chief of the general staff of Russia’s armed forces Valery Gerasimov, the target of an obscenity-laden video posted in late December by a group of Wagner fighters and promoted by Prigozhin himself. (Among other things, Prigozhin’s men repeatedly called Gerasimov a pidor, i.e., “faggot.”)

To many observers, all of this looked like a signal from the top army brass, and perhaps from the Kremlin, that Prigozhin needed to be taken a peg down—which would make sense, considering the scandalous nature of Prigozhin’s presence among the Russian elites as an ex-convict (with a record that includes burglaries and at least one violent mugging) and with a private army in which convicts now reportedly make up about 80 percent of the fighting force of about 50,000 currently in Ukraine.

But only a few hours later, after Prigozhin publicly complained that the Wagner group was being shunned and denied proper credit for its victories, came another turnabout. The Ministry of Defense posted a new statement to “clarify” the first one. This time, it attributed the apparent success in Soledar to the cooperation of several types of troops and, in particular, praised “the courageous and selfless actions of the volunteer assault units of the Wagner private military company” in street fighting. This was the first time an official Russian source had acknowledged the Wagner PMC—which, coincidentally, was officially registered this week in Russia as the “PMC Wagner Center Joint Stock Company.” Meanwhile, Prigozhin is feeling sufficiently confident to publicly accuse unnamed government officials of being disloyal to the Russian cause and to threaten them with “the Wagner sledgehammer”—an allusion to the sledgehammer execution of Wagner defector Yevgeny Nuzhin in November.

This mainstreaming of the Wagner group in all its thuggish glory is happening even as other news reports in Russia offer a shocking glimpse of the sort of people Prigozhin’s company recruits—and, in some cases, will release into society. Recent dead and honorably buried “heroes” from Wagner ranks include several gang leaders and hit men, including one who was serving a 22-year sentence for the murder of a woman and her father, as well as a man who had beaten his disabled mother to death in a drunken rage. That man is not to be confused with the fellow “Wagnerite” who had beaten his 87-year-old grandmother to death with a hammer to steal her money: the grandma killer, Dmitry Karyagin, is alive and will soon be part of the first batch of Wagner fighters to be freed with a full pardon after six months on the front lines in Ukraine.

This is not to say that the Wagner convicts as a group are among the big winners of the war in Ukraine: By and large, they are cannon fodder. Journalist and YouTuber Yulia Latynina has said that their main purpose at Soledar has been to die in massive numbers in order to tie up the Ukrainian forces in a “difficult and pointless battle,” thus buying time for Russia to train less expendable mobilized soldiers. It’s also worth recalling that many of these men are less monsters than victims, ranging from petty offenders to wrongly convicted prisoners coerced into signing up for frontline service. The Russian victory in Soledar, such as it is, was almost certainly achieved via horrifically high casualties in their ranks—the result of Wagner’s “no surrender, no retreat” rules and draconian punishments for violators. This was obliquely acknowledged in an interview to a pro-Russia YouTube channel by “Donetsk People’s Republic” battalion commander Aleskandr Khodakovsky, who said that the Wagner men “continued to push on” even when regular Russian troops abandoned their positions (and commented that he was not a fan of some of the group’s “disciplinary methods”).

In an address on January 9, a few days before the Russian victory at Soledar, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that the ground near the town was “covered with the corpses of the occupiers”; the following day, Ukrainian armed forces claimed that 710 Russian soldiers had died in a single day of fighting in the area. Similar carnage has been taking place in nearby Bakhmut—and is confirmed by Russian sources: a video from the Bakhmut combat area released by Prigozhin around New Year’s Eve showed him standing in a basement amid shoulder-high stacks of bodies of dead Wagner men. (In a typically grisly touch, the video shows Prigozhin saying, “All right, boys, Happy New Year” as some corpses are lugged away by the still-living.)

The futile six-month meat grinder at Bakhmut, whose defenses Prigozhin described as nearly impregnable in another recent video, undoubtedly drove the recent decision to throw a lot of manpower and firepower at Soledar, which is about 11 miles away. Whether the apparent capture of Soledar will give Russians troops a better chance to capture Bakhmut by surrounding it rather than continuing frontal assaults remains to be seen: For instance, Ukrainian military expert Roman Svitan argues that the Bakhmutka River, which separates the two towns, will provide a natural defense barrier, one sufficient to prevent Bakhmut’s encirclement. Interestingly, Khodakovsky, the pro-Russia Donetsk commander, also acknowledged in his interview that the Russian forces’ ability to move on from Soledar to Bakhmut—let alone beyond it—was far from a given. At least so far, analyses from the Institute for the Study of War show, Russian forces have not made significant new progress near Bakhmut or elsewhere in the Donetsk region, and Ukrainian troops are successfully pushing them back. The current state of affairs is summed up, with unintended and darkly humorous symbolism, in a recent ISW report: “Geolocated combat footage published on January 15 indicates that Russian forces have made marginal advances in southeastern Bakhmut near the Bakhmut garbage dump.”

Nonetheless, it seems clear that Russian forces have gotten out of their post-Kherson slump and are trying, with at least some success, to regain momentum. A full victory in Soledar would aid in that effort. A win in Bakhmut would be a much bigger psychological boost—even if, as independent Russian military expert Yuri Fedorov argues in a recent article, Bakhmut’s strategic value to Russia is far smaller today than it would have been last August when the battle for the town began, thanks to Ukraine’s victories in the fall counteroffensive and consequent new lines of defense.

In some ways, Russia has fared better than seemed likely after those Ukrainian victories last fall. The mobilization that was started in September—however mishandled, plagued by equipment shortages, and partly sabotaged by flight abroad and other forms of draft evasion—has given the Russian army the manpower needed to hold its positions and even start advancing. The fighting in Bakhmut and Soledar has, if nothing else, tied down enough of the Ukrainian army to stall Ukraine’s offensive and the liberation of occupied territories. Nor is Russia running out of firepower—whether artillery or rockets—to the extent that some optimistic Ukrainians and pro-Ukrainian commentators had forecast, though its artillery fire does seem to be down considerably.

The good news is that neither Ukrainian determination nor Western support seem to be flagging. Ukraine continues its own offensive operations and is ready to expand them when it receives more weapons. Horrific Russian war crimes like the bombing of an apartment building in Dnipro in which scores of people have been killed are only strengthening the resolve from both Kyiv and its allies. (Even if the missile had been struck by a Ukrainian anti-aircraft system before making impact, as Russia has claimed, this hardly lessens Russia’s culpability for firing a missile designed to sink aircraft carriers into an urban area. For its part, Ukraine has denied having the technological capability of shooting down such a munition.) The fighting vehicles are coming, and there’s a good chance that Germany will finally allow the transfer of its Leopard-2 tanks to Ukraine.

At the start of 2023, Russia is cementing its status as a totalitarian terrorist state. It is about to repeal (retroactively, no less) all of its agreements with the Council of Europe, including membership in the Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Its citizens are being arrested for commemorating the Dnipro attack by laying flowers at public monuments to Ukrainian writers. Its lawmakers are discussing measures to strip emigres and expatriates who criticize the war and the state of their property in Russia, prompting a very Russian moment of dark humor from self-exiled poet and essayist Dmitry Bykov: “It makes sense. If murderers are being sent to war to expiate their crimes with bloodshed, perhaps burglars and robbers can be dispatched to earn their pardon by breaking into our apartments.”

The Putin regime is scoring impressive victories in killing off the remnants of post-Soviet civil society in Russia. The world must make sure it achieves no victories outside its borders.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.