Ukraine Russia war: what is happening in Bakhmut and Soledar - has Putin deployed a ‘nuclear mortar weapon’?

Russia’s private military firm Wagner claims to have taken control of mining town Soledar as fighting continues

Russian forces are escalating their onslaught against Ukrainian positions bringing new levels of death and devastation.

Ukrainian officials have said Russia is continuing with its months-long battle for control of eastern Ukraine.

Late on Tuesday (10 January), the head of the Wagner Group, Russia’s private military firm, Dmitry Prigozhin, claimed in audio reports posted on his Russian social media platform that his forces have seized control of Soledar, in Donetsk, with battles continuing in a “cauldron” in the city centre. However, Kyiv says its soldiers are holding out.

Two British men who have gone missing - Andrew Bagshaw, 48, and Chris Parry, 28 - were last seen heading towards Soledar on Saturday. The pair were volunteering by evacuating vulnerable people from the front line.

Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar earlier said that "heavy fighting is continuing". The claims by both sides have not been independently verified.

‘Everything is completely destroyed’

Late on Monday (9 January) Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said there was "almost no life" left in Soledar and "no whole walls left".

When describing the scene around Bakhmut and Soledar, Zelensky said "this is what madness looks like”.

He added: “The whole land near Soledar is covered with the corpses of the occupiers and scars from the strikes.”

The UK Ministry of Defence said that Russian troops alongside soldiers from the Wagner Group had advanced in Soledar and “are likely in control of most of the settlement”.

The ministry said taking the town was likely Moscow’s immediate military objective and part of a strategy to encircle Bakhmut. But it said “Ukrainian forces maintain stable defensive lines in depth and control over supply routes” in the area.

‘The Sledgehammer’

According to a report by the Daily Mirror, Russian forces have deployed the world’s largest nuke-capable mortar weapon. It is dubbed “the Sledgehammer”, the 2S4 Tulip, or Tyulpan.

The self-propelled mortar is 240mm wide - twice the size of NATO mortars which are 120mm. It is capable of firing nuclear bombs, although it is likely this would be limited to “micro-nukes” aimed at destroying an area the size of a football stadium.

The weapon has already seen service in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Syria.

One security source told the Daily Mirror: “This is a huge weapon, devastating when using conventional weapons and capable of smashing a large area. But they will also be a very large target for Ukraine’s drone and artillery teams, who are hunting down Russia’s offensive equipment daily.

“The 2S5 is capable of targeting something from beyond its line of sight with bombs that would be very difficult, if at all, to deflect or intercept.”

The situation around Bakhmut

Russia illegally annexed Donetsk and three other Ukrainian provinces in September but its troops have struggled to advance. After Ukrainian forces recaptured the southern city of Kherson in November, the battle heated up around Bakhmut.

Taking Bakhmut would disrupt Ukraine’s supply lines and open a route for Russian forces to press toward Kramatorsk and Sloviansk - key Ukrainian strongholds.

Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, Hanna Malyar, said Russia has thrown “a large number of storm groups” into the fight for the city.

Wounded soldiers are arriving for emergency treatment at a Ukrainian medical stabilisation centre near the frontline around Bakhmut. Medics fought for 30 minutes on Monday (9 January) to save a soldier but his injuries were too severe.