Kyiv, Ukraine — Russia’s Defense Ministry said Friday that its forces had captured the salt-mining town of Soledar, thebetween Russian and Ukrainian forces for months. A Ukrainian military commander quickly rejected the claim, however, saying the “severe” battle was still raging.
Soledar is located in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk province, one of four Ukrainian regions that Moscow illegally annexed in September and has been trying to wrest full control over since.
The town’s fall would mark a rare victory for the Kremlin after a series of battlefield setbacks in its invasion of Ukraine. From the outset, Moscow identified Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk province as priorities, and it has treated the areas as Russian territory since their alleged annexation.
“The liberation of the town of Soledar was completed in the evening of Jan. 12,” Lt. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, the Russian Defense Ministry’s spokesman, declared, adding that the development was “important for the continuation of offensive operations in the Donetsk region.”
Taking control of Soledar would allow Russian forces “to cut supply lines for the Ukrainian forces” in the Donestsk city of Bakhmut and then “block and encircle the Ukrainian units there,” Konashenkov claimed.
But Sergiy Cherevaty, a spokesman for the Ukrainian armed forces’ in the country’s east, was quoted by the French news agency AFP as saying “severe fighting” was still underway, with his troops managing to keep “the situation under control in difficult conditions.”
While the battle for the small town has become hugely symbolic, and it does sit in close proximity to the larger Ukrainian-held city of Bakhmut, the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank in Washington, said a Russian seizure of Soledar would not represent “an operationally significant development and is unlikely to presage an imminent Russian encirclement of Bakhmut.”
The institute said that Russian information operations have “overexaggerated the importance of Soledar,” a small settlement, arguing as well that that long and difficult battle has contributed to the exhaustion of Russian forces.
An ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who runs the Wagner group, claimed earlier this week that his mercenary forces — who operate with some degree of coordination with Russian regular troops — had captured Soledar. His claim was quickly challenged by both the Russian and Ukrainian militaries, however, which said the fight continued.
The vicious fighting over Soledar and Bakhmut has highlighted a rift between the Russian Defense Ministry’s leadership and Prigozhin and his private military force, with Putin’sof the military brass seen as a bid to show that the Ministry still has his support as the troubled conflict nears the 11-month mark.
On Wednesday, the ministry announced unexpectedly that a new commander was being put in charge of the war in Ukraine, which Russian officials refer to only as a “special military operation.” The move, coming only three months after the previous commander was tapped, was a clear indication of unease in Moscow over the trajectory of the war.