Soledar, which has now become the scene of the fiercest fighting in Ukraine, has been the center of industrial salt mining since 1881. Over almost 150 years, the length of salt mine galleries in the area of the town, which lie at a depth of 300 meters, has reached 200 kilometers.
The New Voice of Ukraine explains how they were used before, whether tanks and armored vehicles can move through the mines, as the owner of the illegal PMC Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, recently claimed, and what is unique about them.
Why Prigozhin's statement is ‘nonsense’
On Jan. 10, the founder of the Wagner Group, “Putin’s chef” Yevgeny Prigozhin, said that he had "visited" the Soledar salt mines. The video posted on his Telegram channel shows him underground, presumably surrounded by his militants.
In response, the Centre for Strategic Communications of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said on Telegram that Prigozhin was not in the Soledar mines, referring to the message of the famous OSINT analyst Def Mon. He published a photo of a salt mine in Soledar and a photo of a cave in Volodymyrivka, Donetsk Oblast, as well as a screenshot from Prigozhin's video, stating that his location did not at all resemble salt mines.
Prigozhin also claimed that tanks and infantry fighting vehicles were allegedly moving through the mines.
In addition, UK intelligence wrote about the possibility of using salt mines in Soledar.
"Part of the fighting has focused on entrances to the 200 kilometers-long disused salt mine tunnels which run underneath the district," read the post on the UK Ministry of Defence's Twitter account on Jan. 10.
“Both sides are likely concerned that they could be used for infiltration behind their lines.”
Viktoria Skrypnyk, the chief geologist at idle salt producer Artemsil, said that the use of the mines for military purposes is unlikely, as the shafts are deep and narrow, and in order to lower salt-mining equipment into them, it had to be disassembled and then reassembled, which takes a very long time.
The representative of the Donetsk Oblast Military Administration Tetyana Ihnatchenko-Tyurina seconded her and dismissed Prigozhin's words as "nonsense".
In addition, according to Skrypnyk, it is dangerous to be in the mines, as the ventilation system is completely stopped, and there may be too little oxygen.
At the same time, Current Time TV stresses that the main advantage of the Artemsil tunnels is that they are so deep that no artillery can reach them, and notes that in 2014 Russia did not capture Soledar.
How large are Soledar’s salt mines?
Industrial salt mining in Soledar began in 1881. During this time, about 250 million tons of salt have been mined at the deposit, and the explored reserves of the deposit are about 5 billion tons. Artemsil produced 94% of all salt consumed in Ukraine, but due to intense fighting, the company ceased operations in April 2022.
Skrypnyk stressed that this is the largest enterprise in Europe, with a very high quality of salt with "the content of sodium and chlorine being 98.5% and higher." According to her, the geology of the salt layers in the area make it convenient to extract.
Ihnatchenko-Tyurina also noted that 200 kilometers is "the total number of explored deposits and their configurations", and the Artemsil mine is spread over an area of about 53 square kilometers.
When asked whether it is possible to enter the salt mine in Soledar and exit in Bakhmut, she replied: "Honestly, I can't say that. This is not a system of underground passages from town to town. The mine could be of any configuration, but I don't think anyone knows whether there is another way to the surface from this mine."
How salt mines were used
Some of the mines in Soledar were a tourist attraction and shortly before the full-scale invasion, excursions for tourists were conducted here.
In June 2021, an episode of the famous Ukrainian travel show “The World Inside Out” was filmed in the salt mines of Soledar. In addition to salt mining, it showed an underground church in the salt mine with a ceiling height of 40 meters.
Also in the mines, at a depth of 300 meters, there is the Salt Symphony speleosanatorium, where you can rent a room and stay. The salty conditions are said to be ideal for health.
In the past, symphony orchestras have played and art exhibitions have been held in the salt mines. In 2004, the Salt Symphony classical music festival was held in an underground hall with the participation of the People's Artist of Ukraine, soloist of the Vienna Opera Victoria Lukyanets and the Donbas Symphony Orchestra from Luhansk under the direction of Austrian conductor Kurt Schmid. The hall accommodated 250 listeners, each of whom paid from EUR 580 to 2,000 for a ticket.
The first manned underground balloon flight in history also took place here, and was included in the Guinness Book of Records.