Ukraine: The Battle for Soledar’s Salt Mines
Russians took control of the symbolic town with commercial as well as strategic purposes in mind.
Serhiy (not his real name) remembers when the last load of salt left Soledar.
“The last trucks left on May 16,” the 39-year-old miner told IWPR. “The very next day, a Russian air bomb fell near the administration building, tearing out the doors and windows. A colleague of mine was close to the explosion and survived, miraculously.”
Born and raised in Soledar, Serhiy has spent all his working life in the local landmark mine. The town in Ukraine’s eastern region of Donetsk is home to Europe’s largest salt deposits: a vast, cavernous network of underground tunnels extending for about 200 kilometres that Russian forces, and the mercenary group Wagner in particular, targeted for economic and strategic purposes.
The Russian assault on Soledar and Bakhmut, barely 12 kilometres apart, started in mid-2022 and there have been intense ground battles in and around the towns since August. In January 2023, Ukrainian forces still defended the area of Artemsil, the state-owned enterprise controlling the now idle mines. On January 14, the Ukrainian flag still flew over the Artemsil mine; two days later the now-razed town was in Russian hands.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group that is spearheading the assault on Bakhmut, clearly saw the mining tunnels as a strategic asset. He wrote on his Telegram channel that they are “a network of underground cities…it not only [can hold] a big group of people at a depth of 80-100 metres, but tanks and infantry fighting vehicles can also move about”.
Artemsil, however, said that the use of the mines for military purposes was unlikely: the shafts are deep and narrow and the tunnels too deep to lower artillery into them. Concerns remain about the use of the vast tunnel system for the infiltration of troops.
Volodymyr Fitio, press officer of Ukraine’s land forces, told IWPR that "at this moment we cannot comment on these issues. We will be able to return to this topic after the liberation of the temporarily occupied territories".
Soledar’s history is intertwined with salt. The town of 10,000 people was given that name in 1991: it means “a gift of salt” Such is the scale of the salt mines that geologists claim that less than five per cent of the seam has been removed since industrial mining began in 1881. Explored reserves amount to about five billion tonnes.
Until February 2022, Artemsil, Ukraine's largest salt producer and one of the world’s biggest, produced about two million tonnes of salt, accounting for 94 per cent of Ukraine’s production, and exported about 40 per cent to Europe.
Founded in 1976, the company continued to work in the first weeks of the war but had to cease operations in April 2022, marking the first time the mines had been idle since World War II.
“Russian forces damaged the railway network near the factory. It became difficult to ship the salt,” one 34-year-old miner told IWPR on condition of anonymity.
The company managed to evacuate some stocks, but Ukraine’s household salt brand disappeared from the shelves in the summer of 2022. Meanwhile its facilities were burned down, its equipment destroyed, and its buildings left in ruins.
“We had 2,500 employees, about 80 per cent of the city worked at Artemsil. There were entire generations of workers,” Volodymyr Niziyenko, the company’s press officer, told IWPR.
“When it became dangerous for people to work, we stopped mining, processing and shipping the salt indefinitely... "[At the beginning] only the security and technical personnel remained."
Artemsil evacuated some of their workers; many residents left with private means, including miners.
Over the winter, the shafts of one of the mines were destroyed in the fighting. This makes it impossible to access: the vertical metal construction allows workers to go down into the tunnels, which are about 260 metres below the ground, and to transport the extracted salt.
A spokesperson for Ukraine’s Donetsk regional state administration told IWPR that three of the main four mined caves have been damaged.
“Russians shelled all above-ground buildings, including the main administrative building…burned down, with all its documents,” another 35-year-old worker told IWPR.
Niziyenko said that it was difficult to estimate the level of damage, “there is simply no source to gather evidence of Russian looting on Artemsil…they are destroying the country's infrastructure”.
The last 500 residents, mostly elderly, left in January; some managed to evacuate with the Ukrainian army, othesr were forcibly taken to Russian-controlled territory.
Civilian houses have also been hit hard.
"My house was destroyed, a rocket flew just into the window. I have no idea what happened inside. One part of the entrance is just gone,” a miner explained to IWPR.
"I really want to go home. I look at the furniture here, but I imagine the furniture I had at home. I even miss our family bikes. My children constantly ask ‘Dad, when will we return to our Soledar?’ said a 45-year-old worker, a veteran of 20 years in Soledar’s mines.
All the miners interviewed asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.
EYES ON THE PRIZE
Before Soledar fell into Russian hands, the White House had warned that Wagner’s push was driven by monetary motives. Russian proxies openly stated their intentions to re-operate the mine. The de-facto head of so-called Donetsk People’s Republic Denis Pushilin said that the salt mines “are subject to restoration” and that “the salt mines will work”.
Russian media reported that Artemsil was an opportunity to replace salt imports from Belarus and Kazakstan, which increased after Moscow banned Ukrainian salt from its market in early 2015 in the wake of the war in Donbas. By then, Artemsil held about 24 per cent of Russia’s salt market.
One of Artemsil’s miners told IWPR that in February Russians announced on social networks the preliminary recruitment of workers, although just who will be employed is questionable as the town has been flattened.
The last salt grains Artemsil managed to get to Ukraine-controlled territory and the unsold stocks the company had were not lost. In late February the company released Solidarity: Ukrainian Rock Solid Strength - a batch of 100,000 200-gramme boxes produced to mark the first year of Russia’s invasion. Each box costs 500 hryvnas (14 US dollars) and all profits go to buy drones for the defence intelligence.
This publication was prepared under the “Ukraine Voices Project" implemented with the financial support of the UK's Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO).