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The battle for the tactical ‘reward’ in the eastern Ukrainian coal mining town

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Destroyed Russian tank in a field in Vuhledar in this February 2023 photo. Photo: AP

In a small coal mining town on the front lines of eastern Ukraine, a battle for strategic supremacy is being waged on a symbolic front that marks the one-year anniversary of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. .

The town of Vuhledar – whose name means “gift of coal” – has emerged as a key flashpoint in the battle for control of Donetsk province. A victory would give both sides—Ukrainian forces now hold the urban center and Russian troops stationed in the suburbs—tactical superiority in the larger battle for the Donbas region as well.

Perched high in the hills, Vuhledar is one of the few high-altitude sites in the region, and its capture would be an important step for Russia to disrupt Ukraine’s supply lines. Meanwhile, securing Vuhledar would give Ukraine a potential launchpad for future counterattacks to the south.

In addition, it holds symbolic weight: Vuhledar is located near the administrative border of Donetsk Oblast, and capturing it will help Russia achieve its larger goal of controlling the entire region.

“The focus of Russia’s military efforts is in Donetsk, and Vuhledar is essentially the southern flank of that region,” said Gustav Gressel, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations office in Berlin. , said.

According to the AP news agency, the uphill battle for the region has cost Russia in manpower and weapons, while the Ukrainians continue to fortify their defenses. Russia sent battalion-level reconnaissance groups to probe the Ukrainian lines and shell the enemy positions with the aim of pushing Kiev forces north to the N15 highway, a key supply route.

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Ukrainian tanks move through the devastated town of Siversk in Donetsk, January 21, 2023. Photo: Getty Images

In a speech last week, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the Russian military was advancing “successfully” in Vuhledar.

Meanwhile, a British defense intelligence report said that Russia’s aim was to capture uninhabited areas in Ukraine-controlled Donetsk but that Moscow did not have the capacity to build the necessary force to change the outcome. of the war.

Vuhledar’s pre-war population of 14,000 has now dwindled to just about 300. The majority of the town’s inhabitants worked in the coal mines and nearby factories before the war.

Olha Kyseliova, recently evacuated, worked in a brick factory before the war destroyed her life. Russian forces stepped up their attacks starting January 24. That day, a rocket tore through Kyseliova’s nine-story apartment building. She was sheltering in the basement with her three children, and when she returned home, she found a hole through the ceiling of her third-floor apartment.

That was when Kyseliova decided to leave her homeland. “I cried all the way, I didn’t want to leave,” she said.

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Olga Kiselyova and her daughter in a shelter in Kiev February 10, 2023 after evacuating from Vuhledar. Photo: AP

Three Ukrainian brigades are located in Vuhledar and on the outskirts of the town. The AP reporter spoke to five commanders in the units of all three. Meanwhile, Russia’s 155th Marine infantry force is located just 4km away from them on the outskirts of Vuhledar.

For both sides, the town is strategically important. “It is one of the main logistics points of the Donbas region, and also one of the main points,” said Maksym, deputy commander of a battalion of infantry Ukrainian marines. , the Russians could easily take over the entire Donetsk region.”

Gressel, an expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, commented that capturing Vuhledar would allow Russia to step up and threaten Ukraine’s supply lines leading to the fierce Marinka frontline in the north. As for Ukraine, Vuhledar will be the launching pad for future counterattacks against Mariupol and Berdiansk.

From their position in the town, Ukrainian forces can peer into the Russian line and have so far been able to repel Russian attempts to encircle Vuhledar. Convoys of tanks, armored vehicles transporting infantry of Russia continuously attacked, trying to break through the defense line of Ukraine. Planes, missiles and artillery aim at the town.

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Destroyed Russian tank in a field in Vuhledar in this February 2023 photo. Photo: AP

“But with our fighters and anti-tank equipment, their efforts were unsuccessful,” said Maksym, deputy commander of the Ukrainian side. “The situation is tense, but under control.”

Similar to other fronts along the East, the Ukrainian side believes that the Russians are losing a lot of infantry in an effort to fatigue and weaken Ukraine’s defenses.

“They are probing and testing us all over the Eastern front, including in Vuhledar,” said Oleksandr, a commander who was recently rotated out of town. They’re trying to find our weakness.”

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Russian tanks exercise in Kadamovsky, Rostov region on February 3, 2022. Photo: Reuters

Kateryna Stepanenko, a Russia analyst with the US-based Institute for the Study of War, said that for now, Russian activities around Vuhledar do not “make operational sense”. More combat power is needed to make breakthroughs in order to achieve Moscow’s stated goal – the capture of the entire Donetsk region.

Even in the event of a victory in Vuhledar, Russia will still need a lot of fighting power to advance north. Three months after capturing the village of Pavlivka last November, Russian forces have yet to make a breakthrough in Vuhledar, which is just four kilometers away.

“It doesn’t matter in terms of operations because the Russians will still have to fight for more territory to create meaningful disruption to Ukraine’s land lines of communication with western Donetsk,” Stepanenko said. “. Vuhledar was just “a settlement on their way, where they suffered considerable losses”.

Meanwhile, the last residents of Vuhledar said they would stay. Oleksandra Havrylko, press officer for the Donetsk regional police, earnestly asked those who remained to leave the devastated town. These men spent most of the day hiding in basements, coming out only during the lull to charge their phones and gather supplies at shelters.

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