At the beginning of May 2023, Russian media shared a flurry of videos from salt mines near Soledar. The videos showcased a captured weapons storage depot said to be inside part of the mine complex which was recently captured by Russian private military contractor unit Wagner. Most interesting was the lack of modern weaponry displayed, indicating Ukraine may have removed the more useful equipment stored there. The mine is located in the vicinity of the settlements of Paraskoviivka and Soledar, north of Bakhmut.
The mines contain a former Soviet arms storage facility, initially said to have been established in the late 1950s, which was taken over by Ukraine when the USSR collapsed. There is also a small arms and light weapons repair facility established by the Ukrainian Army. The facility was temporarily seized by Separatists forces in April 2014, with one Separatist militia member then telling Sky News that: “There are rifles, machine guns, heavy weapons and millions and millions of rounds of ammunition. We are here to stop the forces of the west and anyone else for that matter from getting their hands on them.” Later fighting saw the region secured by Ukrainian forces and the mine back under Ukrainian control.
With the heavy fighting in the region and Bakhmut becoming a focus of Russia’s offensive efforts in the second half of 2022 and the first half of 2023, the mines have again become a focal point. Russia reported that the area the mines were located was captured in mid-February but it wasn’t until early May that the weapons depot was secured and featured in a flurry of videos.
Using the videos shared by Russian media outlets and individuals lets take a look at what has reportedly been captured. From the imagery it is immediately clear that the depot appears to have been stripped of the most useful and modern materiel which was stored there. Videos from the mine focus on the scale of the depot and the plethora of vintage weapons which are said to be stored there.
The first video posted by Alexander Simonov, an RIA contributor, on his personal page on 30 April, begins with the reporter descending in an elevator explaining that the depot is 150 metres below ground. He describes the scale of the facility as ‘impressive’ spanning 5km with 28 galleries and a repair facility. He also explains that Ukraine’s retreating armed forces removed the most modern equipment and unsuccessfully attempted to mine the depot’s entrance. Simonov says that the depot primarily holding small arms ammunition. Simonov speaks to an individual who shows him parts of the depot and explains how it was set up in the 1960. The individual describes the galleries as almost 400 metres long – with torches failing to illuminate the whole gallery. Simonov is told theres 292,000 boxes containing small arms.
Simonov is then shown a repair facility where badly damaged weapons have been abandoned by the Ukrainians when they retreated from the depot. The weapons appear to have been sent to the depot where their damage would be assessed to see if it was possible to repair them. The weapons seen include: AK-74 and AKS-74s, two damaged Barrett M107A1 rifle, DP-27s and SPG-9 recoilless guns.
In one shot there are hundreds of stocks for SKS carbines [misidentified in the video as Mosin-Nagant stocks] seen and in a clip from Simonov’s RIA report shelves filled with AK-74 furniture are seen. In another clip posted a on 1 May, Simonov also examines a DShK heavy machine gun which the Ukrainians have adapted with a muzzlebrake, bipod and stock. Next to it is a PK general purpose machine gun.
The RIA report published on 30 April, appears to have been filmed at the same time and shows boxes of AK magazines, manuals and walls hung with Soviet-era small arms disassembly posters as well as the shelves of AK furniture seen in the first video. Another shot shows an AK-74 still in a vice and a disassembled a AGS grenade machine gun in a crate.
An Izvestia report published on 2 May shows more of the weapons stored in the depot with the footage showing a crate of Second World War Lend-Lease M1 Thompson submachine guns. Also seen are DPM light machine guns and damaged weapons including an RPG-7 and AK-74s. The video also shows the 4.5 tons of explosive stacked to blow the entrance to the galleries.
Also published on the 2 May was the first video showing Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of the Wagner group, visiting the mine. In the video Prigozhin shows off some more Lend-Lease Thompsons submachine guns, this time M1928A1s, “new in oil packing’ he says. He also mentions that there are thousands of PPSh and PPS submachine guns and Maxims, showing a crate containing three PM1910 Maxim guns. In the video he says: “Do we really need this? Should we leave it here to rot further? I wrote to everyone I could. No one is interested.” Suggesting that he would exchange them for shells to support Wagner operations. Despite Prigozhin mentioning PPSh and PPS submachine guns we’ve been unable to find any imagery of the weapons in the mines.
Since 2 May, there has been no further imagery from the mines. It remains to be seen if any of the weapons stored in the mine are utilised by Russia and what exactly is held there with some sources suggesting tens of thousands of weapons dating from the first and second World Wars and later. With many of the weapons obsolescent the most useful of those shown in the videos will likely be the old Soviet machine guns (the DPs and Maxims) and the small arms ammunition. The old Soviet submachine guns and Thompsons will be of less practical value. It’s telling that the officially released videos showed little modern equipment.
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Protesters in Ukraine guard biggest weapons cache in eastern Europe, Guardian, (source)
Ukraine: Militia Controls A Million Weapons, Sky News, (source)
Pro-Russia Activists Set Up Checkpoints in Ukraine’s Far East, VOA, (source)
Retreating Ukrainian troops tried to destroy salt mines in Soledar, TASS, (source)
Ukrainian light weapons captured in Soledar exceed one million, PL, (source)