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Brutal fighting for salt mining town in Ukraine

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By Erin Cunningham, Bryan Pietsch, Victoria Bisset and Natalia Abbakumova

As intense fighting raged in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region Tuesday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock visited the war-ravaged city of Kharkiv and pledged to send more aid to Ukraine.

Baerbock’s visit to Kharkiv was the first by a German Cabinet member to the eastern Ukrainian city since the war began. Ukraine recaptured the surrounding region from Russia in early September. While there, Baerbock promised “further arms deliveries” amid growing pressure from European partners for Berlin to send German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.

The Pentagon also plans to train Ukrainian troops in Oklahoma on how to operate the Patriot missile defence system, a US official told The Washington Post.

In Russia, the secretary of Security Council described the war in Ukraine as a fight against Nato. “The events in Ukraine are not a clash between Moscow and Kyiv. This is a military confrontation between Russia and Nato, and above all the United States and Britain,” Nikolai Patrushev, a powerful Putin ally, told Russia’s Argumenti i Fakti newspaper in an interview published Monday.

As both sides battled for Soledar, a salt mining town just three miles from Bakhmut, Russia forces and Wagner Group mercenaries are likely to have seized control of most of the town, Britain’s Defence Ministry said Tuesday. Some of the fighting has centred around disused salt mine tunnels that run under the area – leading to concerns from both sides that they could be used for infiltration.

“This is what madness looks like,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said of Soledar in his nightly address. “Everything is completely destroyed. There is almost no life yet,” he said.

Russia had shelled more than 25 settlements on the Bakhmut axis, including Soledar, as it attempts to take control of the whole of the Donetsk region, the Ukrainian armed forces said Tuesday. However, the British Defence Ministry said that despite its gains, Russia was “unlikely” to be able to wrest control over Bakhmut, which lies to the south of Soledar, due to Ukrainian defensive lines and supply routes.

A Russian vessel armed with hypersonic cruise weapons has carried out military exercises in the Norwegian Sea, Russia’s Defence Ministry announced Tuesday. “The crew of the frigate ‘Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union Gorshkov’ conducted an air defence exercise in the Norwegian Sea,” the ministry said in a statement. President Vladimir Putin sent the ship to the Atlantic last week. It is armed with Russia’s latest Zircon hypersonic missile, which Moscow claims can reach 7,000 miles per hour and evade Western air defences, according to the Associated Press.

Putin “clearly failed” in his aim of taking Ukraine in a matter or days or causing dissent between Nato members, the bloc’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said Tuesday. “We must clearly strengthen our support to Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said in a news conference alongside European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. His comments were echoed by Michel, who said the war in Ukraine had strengthened the European Union and Nato, and brought the two bodies closer together. However, the war has opened some fissures, with Turkey and Hungary the only two countries that have yet to ratify Sweden and Finland’s entry into Nato.

Iran could be contributing to war crimes in Ukraine by providing military support to Russia, the White House said. Russia has used hundreds of Iranian attack drones to target civilian infrastructure in Ukraine, according to US and Ukrainian officials. “Their weapons are being used to kill civilians in Ukraine and to try to plunge cities into cold and darkness, which, from our point of view, puts Iran in a place where it could potentially be contributing to widespread war crimes,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Monday.

Two British volunteers went missing in the Donetsk region over the weekend, Ukrainian police said. The two men – Andrew Bagshaw and Christopher Parry – were last seen leaving Kramatorsk for the front-line city of Soledar early Friday, British media reported. Bagshaw was in the country helping deliver humanitarian aid and evacuating elderly Ukrainians from their homes near the battlefield, New Zealand’s public broadcaster reported.

Fifteen people were injured in Russian shelling of the southern coastal city of Ochakiv, including a two-year-old child, Mykolaiv governor Vitaliy Kim said Tuesday. The attack was one of five to hit the town Monday, with another reported early Tuesday. The Post has been unable to verify his account.

The secretary of Russia’s Security Council described the war in Ukraine as a fight against Nato. While Nato members have provided weapons and other support to Kyiv following the Russian invasion, countries including the United States have also denied several requests as they sought to balance their support for Ukraine with wariness at being drawn into or escalating the conflict.

Russia’s human rights commissioner said she plans to meet her Ukrainian counterpart later this week. According to Russia’s Tass news agency, Tatiana Moskalkova said the talks would come as part of a forum in Turkey from January 12 to 14. On Sunday, Ukrainian human rights ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets appeared to confirm the meeting, writing on Telegram that he would raise the issue of returning Ukrainian soldiers and civilians.

Russia is turning to “increasingly drastic means to project force” beyond its borders into Ukraine, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Monday. He pointed to Moscow’s growing reliance on fighters from the Wagner Group, a private mercenary organisation. “There are now tens of thousands of fighters associated not with the Russian military, but with the Wagner Group” in Ukraine, Price told reporters at a briefing. Many of the fighters are convicts, he said, adding: “We have made the point that it reeks of desperation. It’s not going to change the ultimate tide of the battle.”

Countries planning to confiscate Russian assets will face “consequences”, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday. “Whatever actions are taken in this context, they will be absolutely null and void and illegal from the standpoint of international law,” he said in response to reports about Estonia’s plans to create a legal framework for confiscated Russian assets to be transferred to Ukraine. “Certainly, they will have consequences for those countries that in any way solidify such a line,” Peskov said.

Nato’s chief says he is confident Sweden will become a member of the alliance, despite a delay by Turkey. Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet that Stockholm has fulfilled Ankara’s demands. He declined to forecast a timeline for Sweden’s accession – spurred by the war in Ukraine – but noted that the process is moving unusually quickly.

Putin is seeking to pull out of an international anti-corruption agreement. He submitted a bill Monday to Russia’s lower house of parliament that “denounced” the Criminal Law Convention on Corruption, according to Tass. Moscow’s withdrawal from the Group of States Against Corruption, an anti-corruption coalition, would “likely serve as another means by which Putin can institute legislation supporting and enabling corrupt practices,” according to the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank.

In Ukraine’s capital, residents are balancing what they call “two worlds”. Despite the harsh realities of war – the constant threat of airstrikes, regular power outages and fears of a nuclear attack – they are carrying on, with restaurants and dance studios still bustling, despite often being run on generators.

The Washington Post’s Siobhán O’Grady and Anastacia Galouchka report from Kyiv that the resilience of the city’s residents provides proof that Putin’s plan to make life unbearable in the capital has failed.

Erin Cunningham is an editor on the Foreign desk, overseeing The Washington Post’s international news coverage. Natalia Abbakumova is a researcher for The Washington Post’s Moscow Bureau. Bryan Pietsch is a reporter covering breaking news for The Washington Post from its hub in Seoul. Victoria Bisset is a breaking-news reporter for The Washington Post’s London Hub.

This article was first published in the The Washington Post