Ukraine battles for eastern town as Russia advances
Olga Karakuts, a farmer, with her cows near the frontline town of Kreminna, Ukraine on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.
By MEGAN SPECIA and IVAN NECHEPURENKO
Intense fighting continued in the eastern Ukrainian town of Soledar on Wednesday, despite a claim by the founder of a mercenary force leading Russia’s offensive there that his troops had seized control of the town.
A morning update from Ukraine’s General Staff of the Armed Forces gave no indication that the battle for Soledar, a small salt-mining municipality enmeshed in Russia’s quest to take a bigger city, Bakhmut, had ended. And Russia’s Defense Ministry and the Kremlin did not confirm the claim by the mercenary force, the Wagner private military company, that Soledar had fallen, saying that the town was only blocked for now.
In the Russian Defense Ministry’s daily briefing, it said that its paratroopers “had blocked Soledar from the north and south” and that its assault units were “fighting in the city.” Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesperson, urged reporters to wait for official announcements about whether the city had been captured, adding that “tactical successes are certainly very important as they come at a rather expensive price.”
Peskov’s recommendation to wait for official announcements came days after the founder of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, asserted that it was his fighters who were leading the assault on Soledar and that he would be the one to announce its fall. On Tuesday, he circulated a photograph of himself purporting to be in a salt mine in Soledar and claimed that his forces had taken the city.
On Wednesday, Prigozhin doubled down on his claim of full control over Soledar, saying that there was only some residual resistance in the mines.
The competing claims over who has the authority to announce the fall of Soledar appeared to suggest growing strains between Russia’s military and Wagner. Prigozhin, an entrepreneur, is a longtime ally of President Vladimir Putin of Russia but has also been publicly critical of Russia’s Defense Ministry. He has become increasingly outspoken after acknowledging in September that he was the founder of the group.
The group’s fighters have also been deployed in support of the Kremlin’s military campaigns in Africa and the Middle East. Wagner, which now includes recruited prisoners, has become the main force in the battle in the area of Bakhmut, and the fighting has been brutal.
The claims played out in Russian media. Even as the Kremlin expressed caution, Russia’s Channel One — one of the two main state-run television networks — trumpeted in its news report Wednesday that Russian forces had achieved “a strategically important victory in the Donbas,” saying that “Soledar is under control.”
The report said that Russian forces had pushed through a “labyrinth of underground strongholds” to capture Soledar. “The road is now open to other important towns,” the anchor said. No mention of Wagner was made.
If Soledar did fall, the seizure of the relatively small municipality would be Russia’s first notable victory in months, after a string of humiliating losses. Ukraine changed the course of the war with its capture of the Kharkiv region in September and then the city of Kherson in November, successes of far greater magnitude.
Moscow sees its campaign in the area around the city of Bakhmut as important to achieving its goal of occupying all of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Military experts say that although taking Soledar would be significant, it would not signal that Bakhmut was about to fall into Russian hands. Ukraine has strongly reinforced its positions in the area, presenting a formidable obstacle to further progress by Moscow.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research group, concluded in a Tuesday analysis that even if Russia captured Soledar, Ukraine could defend and resupply soldiers in Bakhmut.
“The reality of block-by-block control of terrain in Soledar is obfuscated by the dynamic nature of urban combat,” the analysis said, though it noted that “Russian forces have largely struggled to make significant tactical gains in the Soledar area for months.”