Russia says it took Soledar, but Ukraine denies it was captured
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia claimed Friday that its forces had captured a bitterly contested salt mining town, marking a rare victory for the Kremlin after a series of setbacks in its war in Ukraine. The Ukrainian authorities said that the fight for Soledar continues.
Moscow has portrayed the battle for the city and neighboring Bakhmut as the key to capturing the entire eastern Donbass region, as well as a means of crushing Ukraine’s best forces and preventing them from launching counterattacks elsewhere. But it goes both ways, and Ukraine has said its fierce defense of its eastern strongholds has helped crush Russian forces.
Since invading Ukraine on February 24, Moscow has prioritized full control of Donbas, which consists of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where it has supported a separatist insurgency since 2014. Russia has captured most of Luhansk but about half of Donetsk. It remains under the control of Ukraine.
There have been conflicting reports about who controls Soledar, where a bloody battle has been going on for months. The Associated Press could not independently confirm either side’s claim.
“The liberation of the city of Soledar was completed on the evening of January 12,” Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Lt. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said, adding that the development was “important for the continuation of operations. Attacks in Donetsk. Region.”
Controlling the city would allow Russian forces to “cut the supply lines of Ukrainian forces” in Bakhmut, Konashenkov said, and then “block and encircle Ukrainian units there.”
However, Serhii Cherevaty, the spokesman of Ukraine’s military forces in the east, denied the Russian Defense Ministry’s claim and told AP that “there are still Ukrainian units in Soledar.”
Meanwhile, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War observed that Soledar’s downfall “does not signal an operationally significant development and is unlikely to signal an imminent Russian encirclement of Bachmuth.”
The institute overstated the importance of Russian intelligence operations in the small town of Soledar and argued that the long and difficult battle had exhausted Russian forces.
On Thursday, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby downplayed Russia’s potential gains in the region.
“Even if Bakhmut and Soledar fall into Russian hands … it will not have a strategic effect on the war itself,” Kirby said. “And it certainly won’t stop the Ukrainians or slow down their efforts to get their territory back.”
A few hours before Russia’s claim, Ukraine said it was a night of heavy fighting, but did not admit the loss of the city.
On Friday morning, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said on Telegram that Moscow “sent almost all of its (main) forces” to ensure victory in the east.
“This is a difficult phase of the war, but we will overcome it. There is no doubt,” Maliar added.
A Ukrainian officer previously told AP that in the Battle of Soledar, the Russians first sent in large numbers of soldiers from the Russian private military contractor Wagner Group, who inflicted heavy casualties but routed the Ukrainian defenders. Then the Russians sent another wave of highly trained soldiers, paratroopers or special forces, said the Ukrainian officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
Konashenkov said Soledar’s attack was made possible by massive air and artillery strikes and airborne maneuvers surrounding the city. He did not name the Wagner group, which had previously been credited with taking over Soledar. There are signs of tension between the army and the Wagner Group, led by millionaire Yevgeny Prigogy.
On Friday, Prigogine angrily accused the Defense Ministry of “constantly trying to steal Wagner’s victory.”
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Andrew Meldrum, Associated Press