KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia claimed on Friday that its forces had captured a fiercely contested salt mining town, in what would mark a rare victory for the Kremlin after a series of setbacks in his war in Ukraine. Ukrainian authorities said the fight for Soledar continues.
Moscow has portrayed the battles for the city and neighboring town of Bakhmut as the key to capturing the entire eastern Donbass region – and also as a means of crushing the best Ukrainian forces and preventing them from launching counterattacks elsewhere. But it goes both ways, and Ukraine said its fierce defense of eastern strongholds helped pin down Russian forces.
Since its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Moscow has prioritized full control of Donbass – a region made up of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces where it has supported a separatist insurgency since 2014. Russia has seized the major part of Lugansk, but about half of Donetsk remains under Ukrainian control.
There have repeatedly been conflicting reports over who controls Soledar, where a bloody battle has been raging for months. The Associated Press could not independently confirm either party’s claim.
“The liberation of the town of Soledar was completed on the evening of January 12,” said Lieutenant General Igor Konashenkov, spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, adding that the development was “important for the continuation of operations. offensives in Donetsk”. Region.”
Taking control of the city would allow Russian forces to “cut the supply lines of Ukrainian forces” in Bakhmut and then “block and surround Ukrainian units there”, Konashenkov said.
But Serhii Cherevaty, a spokesman for Ukraine’s military in the east, denied the Russian Defense Ministry’s claim, telling the AP that “there are still Ukrainian units in Soledar”.
Meanwhile, the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, observed that the fall of Soledar would not mark “an operationally significant development and would likely not presage an imminent Russian encirclement of Bakhmut”.
The institute said Russian information operations “exaggerated the importance of Soledar”, a small settlement, also arguing that the long and difficult battle contributed to the depletion of Russian forces.
On Thursday, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby also downplayed Russia’s potential gains in the region.
“Even if Bakhmut and Soledar fall into Russian hands…it won’t have a strategic impact on the war itself,” Kirby said. “And that’s certainly not going to stop the Ukrainians or slow them down in their efforts to regain their territory.”
Just hours before Russia’s claim, Ukraine reported a night of intense fighting, but did not acknowledge the loss of the city.
In a Telegram post on Friday morning, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Moscow “sent almost all (its) main forces” to secure a victory in the east.
“It is a difficult stage of the war, but we will overcome. There is no doubt,” added Maliar.
A Ukrainian officer previously told the AP that in the Battle of Soledar the Russians first sent soldiers, many from Russian private military contractor Wagner Group, who suffered heavy casualties but wore down the Ukrainian defenders. Then the Russians sent another wave of highly trained soldiers, paratroopers or special forces, said the Ukrainian officer, who insisted on anonymity for security reasons.
Konashenkov said the storming of Soledar became possible thanks to massive air and artillery strikes and maneuvers by airborne troops to envelop the city. He did not mention the Wagner group, which previously took credit for capturing Soledar. There have been signs of tension between the army and the Wagner Group, headed by millionaire Yevgeny Prigozhin.
On Friday, Prigozhin angrily accused the Defense Ministry of “constantly trying to steal Wagner’s victory.”
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