After months of fighting, Russia says it now runs the Ukrainian town of Soledar, which is home to a salt mine. It says this is an “important” part of its attack.
The defense ministry said that the victory would make it possible for Russian troops to cut off Ukrainian supply lines in the nearby city of Bakhmut, which is much bigger.
Officials from Ukraine said that the fight for Soledar was still going on and that Russia was spreading false information.
Around Soledar, some of the bloodiest battles have taken place.
Pavlo Kyrylenko, the governor of the area, said on Thursday that 559 civilians, including 15 kids, could not be moved out of the town.
Experts in the Russian military don’t agree on how important Soledar is because it isn’t very big. But after months of failures and setbacks in Russia’s 10-month war, taking Soledar would probably be seen as a victory in Moscow.
The US-based Institute for the Study of War said a few hours ago that it was likely that Russian forces had taken over Soledar, but it didn’t think they would be able to go on and surround Bakhmut.
Serhiy Cherevatyi, Ukraine’s eastern military command spokesman, said that Russia had sent its best mercenary fighters and other units to Soledar. But he denied that the Russians had Soledar and said, “We won’t give any more information because we don’t want to show where our fighters are tactical.”
The deputy defense minister, Hanna Malyar, said that the fighting in Soledar had been “hot” overnight. She said that Ukrainian soldiers “bravely tried to hold the defense” during a hard part of the war.
In his nightly address, President Volodymyr Zelensky said that the most important things were Soledar, Bakhmut, and protecting the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine.
The Russian defense ministry said that if they took full control of Soledar, Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut would be cut off and surrounded, and their supply lines would be cut.
It was the first time Moscow said in public that Russia was in charge of Soledar. Most of the fighting in the area has been led by the mercenary group Wagner, which was not mentioned.
The leader of the group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said that his hired soldiers took over Soledar on Tuesday night. But the Russian defense ministry said the next day that Prigozhin was wrong.
Someone made a picture that looked like it was taken in the salt mines of Soledar with Prigozhin and fighters, but Ukraine said it was taken somewhere else.
Russia’s invasion of its neighbor seems to have caused problems between the top brass and the leader of the mercenaries.
Russia has called up about 300,000 reservists for the war since the end of September. In addition, Prigozhin has tried to get more Russian prisoners out of jail.
When asked what he thought about the latest news, he said he wouldn’t say anything but that “the boat is rocking.”
Battle over Soledarindicates that pro-Russian forces may be split.
Russia’s defense ministry says that its troops are fighting for Soledar, a town in east Ukraine north of Bakhmut that has been the center of recent fighting.
It happened after Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of Russia’s notoriously cruel Wagner mercenary group, said that his fighters were in charge and that only his troops were there.
Most likely, Mr. Prigozhin will use any win to make President Putin think that Wagner is a strong fighting force.
But the Russian Ministry of Defense disagreed with what the controversial oligarch said.
In the military’s daily update, spokesman Igor Konashenkov said, “Units of the Russian Airborne Forces have cut Soldar off from the north and the south.”
Analysts have known for a long time that the military and Wagner don’t get along, and Mr. Prigozhin has said in public that generals don’t know what’s going on in the war in Ukraine.
Even though it’s hard to tell if there are fights in the halls of power, there are some signs.
According to the news agency Tass, colonel-General Alexander Lapin was named Chief of Staff of the Ground Forces yesterday. Russian media reported that sources said the announcement of Gen. Lapin’s position, one of those criticized by Mr. Prigozhin last year, was meant to tell the oligarch not to mess with the military.
But many people here have been quick to compliment Mr. Prigozhin and Mr. Wagner on the progress they seem to be making in Soledar. Influential media boss Margarita Simonyan gushed about how “polite” he is and thanked Wagner fighters, who she called “my little darlings!”
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Also, military bloggers on Telegram who favoured the Kremlin had many good things to say about the mercenary group. One blogger said that they made them feel “emotions tonight.”
Someone else said, “When Soledar and [Bakhmut] are freed, it will be a new page in the history of the Russian military.” This is the first time a private military company has done so well in a serious military conflict.
From a strategic point of view, military experts have different opinions about Soledar’s importance. But if Russian forces can control the town, it will be a symbolic victory for the Kremlin. Since the summer of 2022, Moscow’s troops have not been able to take a single important town from Ukrainian forces.