Our live coverage of Russia's war in Ukraine has moved here.
As the fight for control of the eastern Ukrainian towns of Soledar and Bakhmut continues, newly collected high-resolution satellite images from Maxar Technology help illustrate the magnitude and intensity of the battle:
Some background. Soledar, a salt mine town in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region, has been the site of intense fighting in recent days and a target for Russian forces since last May. The head of Russia's private military company claimed Tuesday that his forces had taken control of the "entire territory of Soledar," but Kyiv officials deny the claims, insisting that the fight persists.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Wednesday that Russia sees its attempted capture of Soledar as a propaganda tool with which to maintain domestic support for its war.
Should Russian troops indeed capture the town, it would mark Moscow's first gain in the Donbas for months – potentially offering President Vladimir Putin some welcome news after a string of defeats on the battlefield since last summer. Moscow has struggled for months to attack Bakhmut from the east, which has been a target since the summer.
As criticism mounts over its handling of the stalled campaign, Russia’s Defense Ministry announced Wednesday that General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff, would become the overall commander, with the current commander, Sergey Surovikin, becoming one of his three deputies.
Surovikin was only appointed as the overall commander of what the Kremlin euphemistically calls the “Special Military Operation” in October.
Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow with the Royal United Services Institute, said “it is a kind of demotion [for Gerasimov] or at least the most poisoned of chalices. It’s now on him, and I suspect Putin has unrealistic expectations again.”
In terms of the bureaucratic hierarchy, the announcement is hardly an upheaval. Surovikin already reported to Gerasimov.
But the decision puts Gerasimov, who has been chief of the General Staff for more than a decade, closer to direct supervision of the campaign – and to responsibility for it. While Gerasimov was a key figure in planning the invasion, he appears to have been at arms’ length since, with just one reported visit to the command of the campaign inside Ukraine, though the Defense Ministry did not confirm that either.
Just why the Russian Defense Ministry has made this move at this moment is unclear. It said there was a “need to organize closer interaction between the branches and arms of the Armed Forces” and improve the support and effectiveness of “command and control of groupings of troops.”
Some analysts believe the move may be an attempt by the ministry to exert tighter control over the campaign ahead of a critical few months in which the remainder of the reserve force mobilized in the autumn of 2022 will be deployed after training.
A Russian military analyst who blogs under the pseudonym ‘Rybar,’ and has more than a million followers on Telegram, does not expect the shake-up to be successful – suggesting it’s hoping for “a miracle in the 11th month of the special operation.”
“The sum does not change by moving around its parts,” Rybar wrote.
Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said Wednesday afternoon that Russia is not in control of Soledar, the town in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region that has been the site of intense fighting in recent days.
A CNN team in the region Wednesday heard ongoing, heavy artillery fire in the vicinity of Soledar.
Russia sees its attempted capture of Soledar as a propaganda tool with which to maintain domestic support for its war effort, President Volodymyr Zelensky said Wednesday.
A Ukrainian soldier in Soledar told CNN Wednesday evening he and his comrades remained in the settlement, but the situation was “very difficult” and at least the next 24 hours would be critical.
Here are other key developments in the war:
- Russia appoints new head of so-called Ukraine "special military operation": Russia’s defense minister has appointed Valery Gerasimov as commander of the Joint Group of Forces leading the country's so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine. Gerasimov replaces Sergei Surovikin, who was appointed to the role on Oct. 8, 2022, and was in charge of Russian forces during their retreat from large swaths of Ukraine’s Kherson region.
- Poland announces it will send Leopard tanks to Ukraine: Poland will send Leopard battle tanks to Ukraine, Polish President Andrzej Duda said during a meeting with Zelensky in Lviv. Zelensky welcomed the decision. It would be the first time a Western-made tank has been sent to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion. Duda cautioned during a news conference that “a whole range of formal requirements, approvals and so on must also be met.” The Leopard tank is manufactured in Germany, and its re-export would typically need the approval of the German government.
- Ukrainian and Russian humanitarian officials met in Ankara: Top Ukrainian and Russian humanitarian officials, who oversee prisoner swaps, met Wednesday in the Turkish capital of Ankara. They also met with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
- UK government discussing "accelerating" support for Ukraine: The British government is working with partners to discuss how to go "further and faster" in supporting Ukraine, including the provision of tanks, according to a spokesperson for Prime Minister Rishi Sunaks on Wednesday.
Fighting is still raging in Soledar, a salt mine town in eastern Ukraine, despite Russian claims that it has gained control of the region.
Should Russian troops indeed capture the town, it would mark Moscow’s first gain in the Donbas for months – potentially offering President Vladimir Putin some welcome news after a string of defeats on the battlefield since last summer.
The significance of Soledar in military terms is minimal. However, its capture would allow Russian forces, and especially the Wagner mercenary group, to turn their focus on nearby Bakhmut, which has been a target since the summer.
The town of Soledar in Donetsk has been a target for Russian forces since last May. With a pre-war population of about 10,000, it has little strategic value in itself, but is a waypoint in the Russians’ attritional slog westwards. Moscow has struggled for months to attack Bakhmut from the east, but were it to capture Soledar, Moscow would at least be able to approach the city from a different path.
The Russian armed forces have had nothing to celebrate since the beginning of July, and have had to retreat in both Kharkiv to the north and Kherson in southern Ukraine.
The capture of Soledar, despite its now-ruined state, would therefore be rare progress. But it would be symbolic rather than substantive. The Institute for the Study of War said control of Soledar “will not necessarily allow Russian forces to exert control over critical Ukrainian ground lines of communication into Bakhmut,” the larger prize.
“Even taking the most generous Russian claims at face value, the capture of Soledar would not portend an immediate encirclement of Bakhmut,” the think tank added.
But Soledar is of outsize significance to one man: oligarch and Wagner mercenary group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin. His Wagner fighters, many of them former prison inmates, have taken heavy casualties with one wave after another of ground assaults across what has become a battlefield of trenches and mud reminiscent of World War I. After months in which the Russian Ministry of Defense has delivered nothing but retreat, Prigozhin is keen to show that his men deliver.
Read more about Soledar here.
The British government is working with partners to discuss how to go "further and faster" in supporting Ukraine, including the provision of tanks, according to the prime minister's spokesperson on Wednesday.
When asked by lobby journalists if the United Kingdom would supply tanks to Ukraine, the prime minister's spokesperson said, “We are accelerating our support to Ukraine with the kind of next-generation military technology that will help them win this war."
"It is clear that tanks could provide a game-changing capability to the Ukrainians and the prime minister told President Zelensky last week that we’ll provide whatever support we can," the spokesperson added. "The prime minister has asked the Defence Secretary to work with partners in the coming weeks to discuss how we can go further and faster on our support to Ukraine including the provision of tanks."
But, while it is "constantly looking at what equipment we can provide," that does not mean that any decisions have been made about providing Challenger 2 tanks right now, the spokesperson said.
Russia sees its attempted capture of the contested eastern Ukrainian town of Soledar as a propaganda tool with which to maintain domestic support for its war effort, President Volodymyr Zelensky said Wednesday.
“Now the terrorist state and its propagandists are trying to pretend that some part of our city of Soledar – a city that was almost completely destroyed by the occupiers – is allegedly some kind of Russia’s achievement,” he said. “They will present – and are already presenting – this to their society in such a way as to support mobilization and to give hope to those who support aggression.”
A Ukrainian soldier in Soledar told CNN on Wednesday that his comrades were “hanging in there” but that the situation was “very difficult.”
“The fighting continues,” Zelensky said. “The Donetsk direction is holding out. And we do everything, without stopping for a single day, to strengthen Ukrainian defense. Our potential is growing. And I thank all our partners who help in this.”
A Ukrainian soldier in the contested eastern town of Soledar told CNN Wednesday evening that he and his comrades remained in the settlement, but that the situation was “very difficult” and that the next 24 hours or so would be critical.
“It is tough here, but we are more alive than anyone else,” the soldier, whom CNN is not identifying for security reasons, said via text message.
The head of Wagner, the Russian private military company, claimed Tuesday that his forces had taken control of the “entire territory of Soledar.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov tempered that sentiment on Wednesday, saying only that there was a “positive trend.” The Russian Defense Ministry said Wednesday that its forces had “blocked Soledar from the northern and southern parts” of the settlement.
“Don't believe what they say,” the Ukrainian soldier told CNN. “We're hanging in there. Though practically on our own. Without commanders.”
He said that the next 24 hours would be “very difficult.”
“During these days everything will be determined for the city. Because we are being trapped, they want to encircle us," he said.
The soldier said that if the nearby Ukrainian units held their ground, his unit would be able to safely retreat. He said that the Russians were jamming Ukrainian communications, making coordination extremely difficult.
“It is not clear who our neighbors are, but someone is there and fighting. We have no connection with them," the solider said.
Russia’s defense minister has appointed Valery Gerasimov as commander of the Joint Group of Forces leading the country's so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Gerasimov replaces Sergei Surovikin, who had been appointed to the role on Oct. 8, 2022, and was in charge of Russian forces during their retreat from large swaths of Ukraine’s Kherson region. Surovikin will now serve as a deputy commander, according to a statement from the Russian Defense Ministry.
“On 11 January 2023, Russian Defence Minister General of the Army Sergei Shoigu assigns new leadership of special military operation,” the ministry said Wednesday on its official Telegram channel.
“Chief of General Staff General of the Army Valery Gerasimov has been assigned the commander of the Joint Group of Forces,” it said.
“The deputy commanders are: the Commander-in-Chief of Aerospace Forces General of the Army Sergei Surovikin, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army General of the Army Oleg Salyukov, as well as the Deputy Chief of General Staff of Russian Armed Forces Colonel General Aleksey Kim,” it added.
The ministry said that the changes were necessary because of “the amplified range of tasks, the necessity of closer cooperation between services and branches of the Armed Forces, as well as of improving the quality of all types of maintenance and efficiency of commanding the groups of forces.”