Ukraine Has Just Suffered Its First Significant Setback In Months. What Next?

Ukrainian forces had to retreat from the town of Soledar after weeks of conflict with Russian soldiers.
Ukrainian servicemen are seen near the frontline, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near Soledar in Donetsk region.
Ukrainian servicemen are seen near the frontline, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near Soledar in Donetsk region.
Stringer via Reuters

Ukraine has just experienced its first significant setback in months after ordering its troops to retreat from a particularly intense battle against Russian forces on the frontline.

It comes just as pundits fear that Russia is planning to launch a new, more aggressive initiative once the winter conditions lift.

Meanwhile, Western allies have only just agreed to send advanced military tanks to Ukraine after a period of hesitation from Germany; and now, Kyiv is calling for long-range missiles, too.

Here’s what you need to know.

What was the setback?

Ukrainian troops have been forced to withdraw from the small, eastern town of Soledar (with a pre-war population of 10,000) where a bloody battle has been playing out for the last few weeks.

While Moscow claimed weeks ago that it had taken Soledar, Ukraine only confirmed on Wednesday that the intense fighting resulted in success for the Russian forces.

The Ukrainian spokesperson for the eastern military command, Colonel Sergei Cherevaty, said that the retreat was demanded to “preserve our personnel”.

He explained on Wednesday: “Russian forces spent colossal resources in lives and equipment in the effort to take Soledar while Ukraine was able to preserve its forces and prevent encirclement.”

This small area is actually of significant strategic importance for Russia – especially after a string of failures from the forces in recent months.

The town will also allow the forces to move closer to Bakhmut, which is just six miles away from Soledar.

Bakhmut, like Soledar, is in the region of Donbas, which Russian president Vladimir Putin has been trying to secure since last summer.

Russia already controls large portions of the Donbas (the illegally annexed the areas of Donetsk and Luhansk), the eastern region known for being rich in mineral resources and an industrial powerhouse.

Russian invasion of Ukraine
Russian invasion of Ukraine
PA Graphics via PA Graphics/Press Association Images

Taking Soledar is not just a victory for the Kremlin either, but the Wagner private military contractor, too.

This mercenary group, founded by millionaire Yevgeny Prigozhin, will see this as a success for their company.

Soledar is also just one example of Russia’s growing aggression in the area.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, the head of the Ukrainian military administration in Donetsk, also said that Russia had been targeted a string of Ukrainian towns in the area recently, killing one person.

A Ukrainian soldier observes the situation near the northern front of the Donbas
A Ukrainian soldier observes the situation near the northern front of the Donbas
SOPA Images via Getty Images

What about the Western weapons being sent to Ukraine?

The main headlines about the war in recent weeks have revolved around whether or not Western allies will send weapons to Ukraine – tanks, in particular.

Kyiv has been calling for 300 modern tanks rather than the Soviet-era machinery it has been using for the last 11 months, to give it an upper hand over Russia ahead of its expected renewed spring offensive.

The UK was the first Western nation to promise main battle tanks when PM Rishi Sunak pledged 14 Challengers 2s.

This week, Germany finally decided to send 14 Leopard 2 tanks to Kyiv after a long period of dithering – but now the limited time to train troops on the machinery, even when the tanks arrive is now critical, according to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

The US is also sending its own M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine.

But now, Ukraine has since said it wants long-range missiles which can strike almost 200 miles behind Russian lines, to disrupt its supply lines.

Mikhailo Podolyak, adviser to Ukrainian president, told The Telegraph there was already an “understanding” in the West that worries missiles would further escalate the war were misplaced.

He told The Telegraph: “Right now we are seeing a sharp change in sentiment among the political elites of European countries, who understand that we need to transfer all equipment, including armoured vehicles.

“And we will reach, I am sure, no doubt, an agreement on long-range missiles.”

At the moment, Ukraine just has Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, a missile with a maximum range of around 60 miles.

But Podolyak said that missiles with longer range will be “part of the negotiation process” next, as “only these missiles will make it possible to destroy almost the entire infrastructure of the Russian rear army and without it, they will fight much worse – it at all”.

The UK has not yet ruled out sending the requested missiles, according to The Telegraph.

What happens next?

Since seizing two key cities last summer in Luhansk, Russia’s progress has been slow aside from Soledar.

But, its frontline attack are likely to pick up again in the spring when the snow and mud clear.

Zelenskyy has also ruled out any peace talks, telling Sky News this week that he “doesn’t understand who makes decisions in Russia” as Moscow requests peace, but then attacks Ukraine with missiles.

He said: “They don’t want any talks, and this was the case before the invasion. President Putin decided so.”

He also expressed fears that “Ukraine is just the first step for him”, and that Putin is “waging a big war”.

The Ukrainian president also warned of a wave of attacks beyond Ukraine, although Russia has not yet extended its aggression beyond Ukrainian borders.

Zelenskyy claimed: “It all depends on our defensive strength. It all depends on how much we can hold them back.

“In the east they are moving forward and losing a lot of people. It’s just an extraordinary number. They don’t care about it. I mean, they don’t count their people. This is a fact.

“We are counting their people. But we don’t have exact numbers. There are much more casualties from their side. But from what we have already seen and counted, there are thousands of people dead from their side, and they are just throwing them, and throwing them, and throwing them and throwing them.”

The Ukrainian president also reiterated that he doesn’t want to fight on Russian territory, because “people are the number one priority”.
“I can tell you for sure if they leave our territory the war will stop.”
But Zelenskyy’s goals do not line with the Kremlin’s, because Russia is determined to hang on to certain parts of Ukrainian land, such as the Crimea which Moscow seized in 2014.

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