Ukrainian servicemen launch a drone not far from the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut in the Donetsk

Near Soledar (Ukraine) (AFP) - On a road near Soledar, members of Ukraine’s territorial defence launched a surveillance drone towards the front line, where fighting is raging to hold back waves of fierce Russian attacks.

Ukraine conceded Wednesday its troops had pulled back this month from Soledar, a town in the eastern Donetsk region that saw some of the fiercest battles of Russia’s nearly year-long invasion.

“For two or three days we lost positions but now we are working to push back to what we had before,” said Igor, part of the aerial reconnaissance unit involved in the attack.

Compared to the rest of the industrial Donetsk region – whose capture Russia has made its military priority – Soledar has seen some of “the worst fighting” over recent days, Igor said.

Russia’s notorious mercenary group Wagner claimed to have spearheaded the offensive for Soledar, claiming its capture on January 11.

Two days later, Russia’s defence ministry announced Moscow’s forces controlled the salt-mining town with a pre-war population of around 10,000.

Graves line a hill overlooking the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut

Moscow’s capture of Soledar was its first battlefield victory in months, and came on the back of a slew of humiliating defeats on eastern and southern fronts.

Ukrainian military spokesman Sergiy Cherevaty told AFP that Ukraine’s forces left Soledar after weeks of heavy fighting focused on the town, “and retreated along the outskirts”.

Some Ukrainian troops were holding the edges of the city, he said, and others were “building a defensive line, fortifying new points, while at the same time delivering a massive blow to the enemy”.

- Fight taking a toll -

He did not disclose when the pull back happened but said it had been carefully planned.

There was no “mass capture” or “encirclement” of Ukrainian forces, he added.

A Ukrainian soldier takes a rest on the road outside Soledar in ths January 14 file photo

The commander of Igor’s unit, a senior sergeant with the call sign “Alkor” said there had been “a strong battle on the front line”, with Ukrainian troops raining shells down on Russian forces.

But, he said, Kyiv’s troops were outnumbered.

“We shoot and shoot and shoot, but after five minutes another wave of 20 enemies is coming at us… their numbers are huge. They use people as cannon fodder.”

The good news, he said, was, “The Russians prevail only in number.”

“Maybe in some places they have crossed the road” running south to the nearby town of Bakhmut, now the epicentre of the war and also its longest running battle.

“But our side is keeping most of the road. Ours stand. They aren’t leaving,” he added.

Despite the difficulty of the combat, Igor said the fighters kept up their morale.

An anti-aircraft rocket rises across the sky near Ukraine's Soledar town

“We understand that if we don’t do this job, no one will come and do it.”

Although some tasked with reclaiming the lost ground were confident Ukraine’s positions can be reclaimed, others were less sure.

“Soledar is gone,” said 144th territorial defence battalion deputy commander Volodymyr Leonov, 10 kilometres (six miles) away, where servicemen recouped away from the front.

And the grinding fight to prevent Russian forces from making even further gains is taking a toll, Leonov added.

He told AFP 27 servicemen had signed a letter saying they will no longer go to combat positions.

This comes as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday signed legislation toughening punishments for disobedience or desertion from the armed forces.

Soldiers could face up to 12 years in prison for desertion and up to 10 years for refusing to fight.

But for certain people, prison is better than dying in the trenches in Donetsk. At least, “some think so,” Leonov said.