Professor of International Security, University of Birmingham
Stefan Wolff receives funding from the Natural Environment Research Council of the UK. He is also a past recipient of grants from the United States Institute of Peace, the Economic and Social Research Council of the UK, the British Academy, the NATO Science for Peace Programme, the EU Framework Programmes 6 and 7 and Horizon 2020, as well as the EU's Jean Monnet Programme. He is a Senior Research Fellow of the Foreign Policy Centre in London and Co-Coordinator of the OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions.
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The battle over the eastern Ukrainian town of Soledar has been raging for several days now, with claims and counter-claims about whether Russia now has full control there.
As of the evening of January 11, Soledar was at best under partial control of the Wagner group of mercenaries, according to an assessment by the US-based Institute for the Study of War and the UK Ministry of Defence.
But heavy Russian bombardment into January 12 confirmed Ukrainian assessments that fighting over the town remained intense.
Regardless of the outcome, this particular battle – and several other developments around it – is instructive for a broader understanding of where the war in Ukraine is and where it might be headed.
Three particular lessons stand out. First, even small territorial gains are enormously costly in personnel and materiel, and they are only achievable after protracted fighting that inflicts significant losses on both sides and ties up substantial resources. If Russia is eventually able to capture Soledar, it will do so only after razing the town to the ground.
Controlling Soledar will, if anything, only be a stepping stone towards the much bigger prize of nearby Bakhmut, one of the last big cities in Donetsk oblast that has not been captured by Russia. Yet, here Ukrainian forces remain firmly in control. Even if Russia were to succeed with its efforts in Soledar, the predicted collapse of Ukrainian defences in the Donetsk region or a strategic withdrawal are by no means foregone conclusions.
The second insight that can be gleaned from the battle for Soledar and the broader context in which it takes place is that both sides maintain maximalist objectives and seem generally unwilling to engage in efforts towards a negotiated settlement. This is despite a recent meeting between the human rights commissioners of Russia and Ukraine, Tatiana Moskalkova and Dmytro Lubinets, in Ankara at which another prisoner exchange was agreed and in which both sides agreed to continue their humanitarian dialogue.
From the Russian perspective, the massive onslaught against Soledar – and the ongoing battles elsewhere along the frontline between Russian and Ukrainian forces in Donetsk oblast are extremely costly in terms of troops and munition. They only make sense if the Kremlin’s aim remains the occupation of all of the four regions Russia annexed after sham referendums back in September.
Read more: Ukraine war: west condemns ‘sham’ referendums in Russian-occupied areas
As fighting has intensified on the ground, so it has between different 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, in part, motivated by the prospect of gaining access to 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 not held back from scathing criticism of the efforts of the top brass of the Russian military.
While Prigozhin may yet win the battle over Soledar, he lost the arguably more 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 chief of the Russian general staff, Valery Gerasimov, as overall commander for the war in Ukraine. Gerasimov was the architect of the original Russian invasion back in February last year. So his appointment is another signal that Putin has not given up on his maximalist war aims.
This, in turn, raises the spectre of the opening of a second front in the war. During a visit to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky warned again of the dangers of an invasion from Belarus. In light of recently beefed-up defence cooperation between Moscow and Minsk and planned joined military exercises at the end of January, this remains a significant threat to Ukraine.
Read more: Ukraine war: Putin’s Belarus visit ends with talk of increased defence cooperation and nuclear sabre-rattling
Surovikin’s replacement with Gerasimov also comes at a time when the relentless campaign of drone and missile attacks against Ukraine appears to have ended – without achieving its aim of breaking Ukrainians’ defensive spirit. This may partly indicate depleted Russian stocks of weapons and ammunition. But – together with the intensifying ground 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 foreshadow a likely Russian offensive, either in Donbas alone or in Donbas and opening a second front from Belarus. Russia’s partial, if chaotic, mobilisation took place in the autumn, and has succeeded in its evacuation and redeployment of forces from Kherson in October.
This has given the Kremlin a significant pool of manpower and the time to regroup forces and train and integrate newly mobilised troops. Together with the prevailing superiority of Russian artillery and air power, this will afford Gerasimov a potential advantage in future offensives.
The third – and longer-term – lesson, therefore, is the need for more western support. Commitments to send more air defence systems and battlefield vehicles to Ukraine are an important step. Once delivered, it also signals that the west remains firmly behind Ukraine’s defence efforts and is backing Kyiv in its aim of restoring full territorial integrity.
But, given how slow western deliveries have been at times, British, Polish, French and likely German military supplies are unlikely to influence the outcome of the current battle over Soledar.
On balance, then, the events in and around Soledar over the past week illustrate that no matter the outcome of the current fighting, this is not a turning point. It’s another strong indication that the war is likely going to be long and costly.
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Professor of International Security, University of Birmingham