Kiev, Ukraine – For analysts, if Moscow is able to capture Soledar, a tiny salt-mining village in Ukraine’s war-torn southeast, the “victory” will be little more than a consolation prize for Russia’s failed military effort.
However, for the Kremlin and pro-Moscow separatists, taking the town with a pre-war population of close to 10,000 would be a ground-breaking triumph.
And to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Russia’s Wagner Group, a private military, Soledar offers access to mineral wealth, a stockpile of firearms and a higher place in the Kremlin’s pecking order.
Prigozhin is known as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “chef” after getting rich from government contracts to feed soldiers, schoolchildren and guests at state banquets.
He has been trying for months to seize the nearby city of Bakhmut – a key logistics hub whose capture would allow Russian and separatist forces to advance deep into southeastern Ukraine.
Despite countless attacks, shelling and a reported loss of thousands of soldiers, including fighters recruited from Russian prisons, freshly mobilized reservists and conscripts from separatist-held Ukrainian territories, the Wagner Group failed to decisively capture Bakhmut not to take
This setback is particularly humiliating after a months-long series of Russian defeats and retreats in eastern and southern Ukraine that have highlighted what some observers see as disorganized, poorly coordinated and poorly motivated Russian forces.
So Moscow needs a victory – if not a strategic one, then at least something that can be trumpeted on Kremlin-controlled television networks and reported to Putin.
“There is a propaganda point of view – as Bakhmut [can’t be taken]then they should at least show something because Prigozhin promised it to Putin,” Lieutenant General Ihor Romanenko, former deputy chief of the general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces, told Al Jazeera.
The “encirclement” of Soledar was reported late on Tuesday and presented as an act achieved solely by the Wagner army.
“I want to emphasize again that no other military units except the Wagner fighters [took] take part in the storming of Soledar,” Prigozhin told the Kremlin-funded RIA Novosti news agency.
His press service then released photos allegedly taken in the salt mines below Soledar.
Ukraine’s military denied his claims.
Soledar’s takeover “is not true”, spokesman Serhiy Cherevatyi told Al Jazeera. “Waiting for a detailed report by the armed forces.
The press service of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said the photos were actually taken in Volodymyrivka, a separatist-held town in the eastern Donetsk region.
And Prigozhin’s words about the exclusive role of his army were disputed even by the Russian Defense Ministry, which said on Wednesday that its paratroopers had “blockade” Soledar’s south and north and were fighting in the center of the town.
The Kremlin urged caution.
“Let’s not be in a hurry. Let’s wait for official announcements,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said as he described a “positive dynamic in progress” in Soledar.
Meanwhile, a separatist leader hailed Soledar’s “takeover” as a step to gain full control of Donetsk, parts of which have been occupied by pro-Moscow rebels since 2014.
“This is a groundbreaking moment,” Denis Pushilin told the NTV television network. “We are preparing the moment we have been waiting for, the liberation of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’.”
For other pro-Kremlin Russians, Soledar is a devastating Ukrainian loss of manpower and a personal defeat for Kiev’s commander-in-chief, Valerii Zaluzhnyi.
“In any case, Zaluzhny never counted losses, but here he outdid himself by watching over thousands of soldiers to die or be captured,” Herman Kulikovsky, a popular Russian military analyst, wrote on Telegram on Wednesday.
“Actually, the Wagner troops destroyed not only a significant part of the Ukrainian forces trying to hold Soledar, but also part of the forces, reserves and – most importantly – the attention of the Ukrainian General Staff pulled from other front lines,” he wrote.
“If there is no Soledar, there is no Ukraine,” pro-Kremlin publicist Zakhar Prilepin said on Telegram.
The town is definitely the key to the seizure of Bakhmut.
But what lies beneath and around it also provides an explanation for why Wagner’s Prigozhin is so desperate to control the town and monopolize its takeover in the eyes of the Kremlin.
The salt mines below Soledar contain a large military prize, large depots of firearms dating back to World War II.
Salt absorbs water and prevents rust, and Moscow began loading the mines with Nazi trophy weapons and hundreds of thousands of Soviet handguns in the late 1950s, according to Nikolay Mitrokhin, a historian at Germany’s Bremen University.
“Therefore, in the spring of 2014, the Ukrainian army deployed a battalion of special forces there and defended the mines of the Donetsk. [separatist] militias gathering at the gates,” he told Al Jazeera.
The depot may not have been fully evacuated because its elevator cannot bring more than a dozen crates to the surface at a time, he said.
Soledar’s salt can be just as valuable.
The town, whose name means “a gift of salt,” once supplied up to 40 percent of the Soviet Union’s edible salt.
Before the war, it supplied about 90 percent of salt in all of Ukraine, and hostilities around the town caused a rise in prices.
The town’s surroundings are also rich in alabaster, valuable clay for ceramics and coal.
And Prigozhin is known to have business interests that go far beyond maintaining a private army.
Its fighters reportedly cut their teeth in Syria, helping President Bashar Assad reclaim most of the war-torn nation.
Then Evro Polis, a company controlled by Prigozhin, signed a deal to develop Syrian oil and gas fields and repair energy infrastructure, according to Russian and Western media reports.
Some Wagner units moved to the war-torn Central African Republic and helped Prigozhin gain control of the lucrative “blood diamond” trade, according to the France-based All Eyes on Wagner research group.
Apart from Soledar, the southeastern region of Donbas is Ukraine’s treasure trove of mineral wealth, metallurgical and chemical plants.
“Donbas is rich in raw materials, and its industrial complex can also be used,” Aleksey Kushch, a Kyiv-based analyst, told Al Jazeera.
“I think a much more valuable prize is at stake – a place in Russia’s political hierarchy,” Kushch said, referring to Prigozhin’s ambitions to gain more traction within the Kremlin.