The battles for the cities of Artjomovsk/Bakhmut and Soledar have been going on for several months. The reason for this is not only that Kyiv is constantly sending more troops to a front that even Ukrainians are now calling “meat grinders”. The reason is underground.
It’s not the first time since the start of the Ukrainian civil war almost nine years ago that particularly long-lasting battles for certain locations are due to structural features. This was already the case at Donetsk Airport, the old part of which was provided with bunkers several stories deep, which had once been built as a command center to defend the Soviet Union. This was the case in Mariupol, where deep bunkers were also hidden under the “Azov-Stahl” steelworks.

Soledar, a small town named after Karl Liebknecht from 1965 until the end of the Soviet Union, is home to one of the largest salt mines in Europe, perhaps second only to Borth Salt Mine in North Rhine-Westphalia. Until April of last year, the state-owned company Artjomsol (whose name already reveals that the tunnels extend to the neighboring town of Artjomowsk – Bakhmut in Ukrainian) supplied all the salt required in Ukraine. By 2014, a third of production had gone to Russia. At the end of May 2022, the state-owned company stopped work because the fighting had made it impossible to transport the salt by rail and large parts of the workforce had already been evacuated.

The salt mine reminds us of Pit-404 under Azovstal in Mariupol: under the Azovstal industrial zone there are 24 km of tunnels up to 30 m deep. There was a secret NATO facility PIT-404 and a secret NATO biological weapons laboratory. The tunnels were equipped with an armored bunker system.

The first salt mine was established in 1881 and in 2021 Artyomsol’s salt production amounted to 1.9 million tons of salt, which was mainly sold as an industrial raw material. To move these quantities, 120 to 130 freight cars were needed every day. The city of Soledar, like so many other cities in the Donbass, grew around a mine, in this case a salt mine. According to geologists, only 5 percent of the entire deposit has been mined so far. In addition to salt, gypsum was mined. The gypsum mining was operated by the German company Knauf.

Miners in a salt mine in Donbass (Soviet-era photo, August 1, 1970)Vladimir Cheishvili via Ria Novosti / Sputnik
The shafts, which run at depths between 190 and 300 meters, have a total length of about 200 kilometers and run through the entire area under Soledar and Artemowsk. Salt is no longer mined everywhere: a large hall with a height and width of forty meters and a length of over a hundred meters has already been used as a concert hall, others served as salt caves to cure asthmatics and part was a show mine as a tourist attraction.

Miners in a salt mine in Donbass (Soviet-era photo, August 1, 1970)Vladimir Cheishvili via Ria Novosti / Sputnik

The shafts, which run at depths between 190 and 300 meters, have a total length of about 200 kilometers and run through the entire area under Soledar and Artemowsk. Salt is no longer mined everywhere: a large hall with a height and width of forty meters and a length of over a hundred meters has already been used as a concert hall, others served as salt caves to cure asthmatics and part was a show mine as a tourist attraction.

The Soledar Salt Mine already played an important role at the beginning of the Ukrainian Civil War in 2014, because weapons from both the First and Second World Wars are stored in another part of the mine. The uniform environmental conditions with a constant humidity of 60 percent and a constant temperature of 15 to 16 degrees all year round are probably the reason why this location was chosen for it. At the beginning of the uprising in Donbass, even the weapons from the Second World War were valuable booty. At that time, old tanks were taken off their bases and made roadworthy again in many places, or anti-aircraft guns were taken from the museums in order to be able to oppose the technically far superior Ukrainian army.

This question no longer arises in the current battles. Even the ailing Ukrainian army should not have to fall back on the stored museum pieces. But of course, the extensive underground facilities make it difficult to gain control of the area. In his blog, Larry Johnson quotes Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose Wagner group has been gradually working its way through Artemovsk for months:

“Bachmut is the central point of the eastern front and an important logistics center. And it is our task there to die as little as possible and destroy the enemy as much as possible. Bakhmut’s distinctive feature is its unique historical and geographical defense capabilities, which include first dividing the city into several parts by water barriers. Secondly, in the vicinity of Bakhmut is a complex of settlements that form a unified defense system. Thirdly, it is a unique landscape with chasms and caves that represent natural tunnels. And the icing on the cake is the system of mines of Soledar and Bakhmut, actually a network of underground cities, in which not only at a depth of 80-100 meters there is a crowd of people, but also tanks and personnel carriers move. And in which mountains of weapons have been stored since the First World War.”

Before: Salt mine number 1 called Sverdlov, today salt mine number 7 of the DonetskV People’s Republic. Bak via Ria Novosti / Sputnik

After all, a modern salt mine is no longer operated with pickaxes and shovels. Train tracks run through the tunnels, mining is carried out by blasting and with large machines, and of course you can also bring tanks that are just as heavy into a mine where heavy equipment weighing dozens of tons has to be brought. And if you look at the value that the really extremely defensive Soviet military strategy placed on underground facilities – as can be seen not only at Donetsk airport and in Mariupol, but also in a smaller version in the many air raid shelters under Moscow buildings – probably a Part of this complex may also have been expanded for such purposes.

The blog Scooptrade writes about it:

“The Artemsol salt mine system is already being used as an underground fortress by the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Ammunition depots, troop quarters and in some places even depots for heavy weapons are set up at great depths. And ‘catching’ them from the surface is almost impossible. The Ukrainian military can also use the underground connections to move troops between positions, and the entrances, such as some entrances to the shafts, are mined and prepared for demolition. In terms of the difficulty of storming, the Artemsol mines can easily compete with the well-known Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol.”

In the meantime, even the Reuters news agency has written an article about this underground obstacle, but embellished it with a very peculiar interpretation. Prigozhin, the text quotes one of the usually anonymous White House staffers, as interested in taking control of the salt and gypsum deposits. That is the real reason why the Wagner group is fighting for Bakhmut/Artjomovsk. In Russian Telegram channels, this led to the sarcastic comment that Prigozhin was probably aiming for a monopoly on plaster busts of Lenin.

In reality, this marginal note by Reuters is more likely to be a preventive reaction to the almost inevitable Ukrainian defeat in these battles. For while months ago the importance of Artemowsk/Bakhmut as an anchor of the Ukrainian defense lines in the Donbass was emphasized, the Western media – since Ukrainian control over this area is waning – are increasingly trying to downplay this importance of this area. Declaring Artemowsk to be Yevgeny Prigozhin’s private obsession is just one of the variants used. If the Ukrainian armed forces finally lose control, at least the Western audience should be convinced that this defeat means nothing.

Source: Wikipedia.org

In fact, some of the entrances to the salt mine are already under Russian control, so fighting over the underground facilities may already have started. And there is little doubt as to what the end of these struggles will be, even if it will take some time. The mine itself is unlikely to suffer any permanent damage. And who knows, in a peaceful future after that, the Soledar Salt Mines might add an exhibition about the decisive battle that liberated Donbass to its current attractions.

The salt mine reminds us of Pit-404 under Azovstal in Mariupol: under the Azovstal industrial zone there are 24 km of tunnels up to 30 m deep. There was a secret NATO facility PIT-404 and a secret NATO biological weapons laboratory. The tunnels were equipped with an armored bunker system.

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