What Soledar’s Salt, Misplaced within the Battle for Bakhmut, Means to Ukraine

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“Salt gave us work and salt gave us life,” stated Ruslan, a salt miner turned soldier.

Ruslan, 45, was working 1,000 toes under the earth in one in every of Europe’s largest salt mines when the Russians launched their full-scale invasion. Virtually a 12 months later, he was preventing close to the ruined metropolis of Bakhmut in japanese Ukraine when the Russians took management of his close by hometown, and the mine with it.

“I can’t even describe that feeling now,” he stated when requested to recall how he felt when the city, Soledar, was misplaced. “The whole lot pricey to me, all the pieces I cherished, labored for, and dreamed about was shattered right away.”

Ruslan, 45, labored within the salt mines of Soledar earlier than Russia’s full-scale invasion.Credit score…by way of Ruslan

Soledar — which suggests present of salt — fell in January, permitting the Russians to step up their assault on Bakhmut, about 40 miles to the south. The small city, with solely 10,000 residents earlier than the assault, additionally held a particular place in Ukraine’s financial system and historical past.

The mine supplied greater than 90 % of the nation’s salt, and its operator, the state-owned firm Artemsil, exported salt to greater than 20 nations. Now Ukraine is counting on imported salt for the primary time in its fashionable historical past.

However the nation’s connection to its salt runs deeper than economics: It’s a matter of nationwide delight. Practically each house had a package deal of salt from Soledar. Salt was among the many first assets that made the japanese Donbas area well-known for its mineral wealth.

The remnants of greater than a century of mining have been spectacular, too — excavations greater than 1,000 toes deep, linked by greater than 200 miles of tunnels, and caverns with cathedral-like roofs sufficiently big to host orchestral concert events, a soccer match and even a hot-air balloon. The Soledar mine had develop into a vacationer attraction, full with a sanitarium constructed across the unproven well being advantages of respiration salt-infused air.

Quickly after the Russians launched their invasion, Soledar got here underneath withering bombardment. Ruslan, whose job was to make sure contemporary air within the mines, recalled how they raced to get sufficient salt from the earth to replenish the nationwide strategic stockpile earlier than shelling compelled the corporate to droop operations in late April final 12 months.

The salt disappeared from retailer cabinets final summer time, however 20 tons of inventory that the federal government and the corporate managed to recuperate is now being offered inside Ukraine to lift cash for the conflict effort. Its packaging is predicated on a broadly shared illustration by the designer Artem Gusev that turned Artemsil’s salt-crystal emblem right into a Ukrainian trident and changed the phrase “salt” (“sil”) with “energy” (“mits”).

When Artemsil turned conscious of the illustration, it noticed the prospect to “add a little bit little bit of energy to each Ukrainian,” stated its head of communications, Volodymyr Nizienko. Based on the federal government platform dealing with the gross sales, the marketing campaign has raised greater than $1.5 million.

The cash can’t change the greater than 2,500 jobs misplaced, or rebuild what the bombardment destroyed, however it should purchase drones for the Ukrainian navy to aim to win the city again.

The destruction of Soledar was a part of Russia’s broader concentrating on of Ukraine’s financial system. The occupation of Enerhodar — a city whose title means present of vitality, house to Europe’s largest nuclear energy plant — helped the Kremlin flip Ukraine from an vitality exporter into a rustic struggling to satisfy its personal energy wants.

Russian occupation of lands used to provide wheat, corn and sunflower oil — usually Ukraine’s high exports — has devastated the agricultural sector. The wreckage of Azovstal, the Mariupol plant the place Ukrainian troopers held out for months, is a testomony to Russia’s decimation of the nation’s metal trade. And port blockades throttle what stays.

Earlier than Soledar fell, the city’s annihilation was principally full.

“The whole lot has been utterly destroyed; there’s nearly no life left,” President Volodymyr Zelensky stated in early January. “The entire land close to Soledar is roofed with corpses of occupiers and scars from strikes. That is what insanity seems to be like.”

Ruslan, who now goes by the decision signal Miner, discovered of the Ukrainian forces’ withdrawal from Soledar from buddies as he was preventing within the forest belt north of Bakhmut, close to the village of Pidhorodne.

He had a tough time placing into phrases the brutality of the Russian onslaught there, calling it “a nightmare.”

“Wagner group fighters have been attacking us consistently; we didn’t have sufficient ammunition,” he stated, talking by phone from a place in a special a part of the nation. His full title is being withheld for safety causes since he’s nonetheless on energetic obligation. “Not all of us survived, however we achieved all of the duties and defended the place.”

He paused. “To be trustworthy, it was hell,” he stated.

It was the top of the mercenary group Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who launched a video on Jan. 12 trumpeting the autumn of Soledar — essentially the most important Russian territorial achieve in months. He claimed he was filming his victory speech within the salt caverns.

The symbolism was potent, and contested by the Ukrainians: Officers and employees from Artemsil stated the backdrop seemed like a close-by gypsum mine.

Mr. Prigozhin additionally sought to attribute navy significance to the mines, which have been rumored to carry an arsenal courting to Soviet occasions, saying he hoped to utilize each saved weapons and the tunnel community.

The British navy intelligence company stated Ukrainian and Russian officers have been more likely to be involved about how the opposite aspect may use the huge community of tunnels to their benefit.

“Each side are possible involved that they might be used for infiltration behind their traces,” it stated in an announcement.

Ukrainian officers declined to touch upon any potential weapons cache. However Viktoria Skrypnyk, the chief geologist for Artemsil, stated when Soledar fell that using the mines for navy functions was unlikely: The shafts are too deep and slender to simply transfer navy tools out and in.

Ruslan — who as soon as guided excursions by way of the caverns — stated that he had not communicated with anybody in Soledar for the reason that Russians arrived, as a result of there was nobody left.

The handful of civilians who remained, he stated, have been both too outdated to maneuver or had seemed ahead to the Russian arrival as a result of they supported Moscow. Any others, he stated, had most likely been killed.

Ruslan’s spouse, son and daughter have been evacuated from Soledar earlier than the Russians got here, and the household doesn’t know when it should return. A few of his buddies have given up on the considered going house, constructing new lives in new cities.

“I can’t let it go,” Ruslan stated. “I do know that we are going to win it again, we’ll come again there after the victory, we’ll restore all the pieces and can stay on.”

Within the meantime, he stated, his household holds onto a single bag of salt from Soledar, saving it for holidays and the day they’ll go house once more.

Anna Lukinova contributed reporting.



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