Ukraine has acknowledged that its troops have abandoned the devastated eastern town of Soledar to Russian forces, and urged allies to go beyond the provision of modern battle tanks and supply it with western fighter jets.
Soledar has been at the epicentre of fighting between Ukraine and Russia in recent weeks, as Moscow’s invasion force sought to gain a foothold in the small salt-mining town and launch an all-out assault on the nearby city of Bakhmut.
“To save the lives of personnel, the defence forces left Soledar and dug in at previously prepared defensive lines. They fulfilled the main task: they did not allow the enemy to systematically break through the frontline in the Donetsk area,” Ukrainian military spokesman Serhiy Cherevatyi said on Wednesday.
Kyiv’s troops “were not surrounded or captured. But we cannot afford the luxury afforded to our enemy, of simply throwing fighters to their deaths. We are trying to manoeuvre, strike and use small-group tactics to wear down the enemy”, he added.
The Wagner Russian mercenary group claimed to have taken Soledar more than a fortnight ago, but Ukraine insisted that its forces remained in the ruined town and were repelling what it described as wave after wave of near-suicidal attacks, led by prisoners recruited from jail by Wagner on the promise of a pardon if they survived the battlefield.
Soledar is the first town captured by Russian forces for several months, following retreats from much of the Kharkiv and Kherson provinces, and Moscow says its capture will reinvigorate its bid to seize the rest of the Donetsk region.
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Military analysts expect both sides to launch a major offensive in spring, and Ukraine welcomed a decision by the United States and Germany – alongside other European allies – to provide dozens of main battle tanks that could help it drive back Russia’s invasion force.
“So the tank coalition is formed. Everyone who doubted this could ever happen sees now: for Ukraine and partners impossible is nothing. I call on all new partners that have [German-made] Leopard 2 tanks in service to join the coalition and provide as many of them as possible,” Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Twitter.
“We have new tasks ahead: western-type fighter jets, sanctions, peace formula implementation,” he added, referring to attack aircraft now being requested by Kyiv, its call for tougher sanctions on Russia, and its proposed framework for the de-occupation of all Ukrainian territory – including the Crimean peninsula that the Kremlin seized in 2014.
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Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukrainian defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov, said: “The next big hurdle will now be the [western] fighter jets… If we get them, the advantages on the battlefield will be just immense.”
“They didn’t want to give us heavy artillery, then they did. They didn’t want to give us Himars ([ong-range rocket] systems, then they did. They didn’t want to give us tanks, now they’re giving us tanks,” he told Reuters about how allies have expanded arms supplies to Ukraine since Russia launched its full-scale invasion last February.
Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to Washington, said the provision of US tanks to Kyiv would make it “impossible to justify such [a] step using arguments about ‘defensive weapons’.”
“This would be another blatant provocation against the Russian Federation. No one should have illusions about who is the real aggressor in the current conflict,” he added.