Russia claims capture of Soledar; Ukraine denies, says battle ongoing

Russia’s Defense Ministry announced on Friday that its forces had captured the salt-mining town of Soledar, which has been the focus of a bloody battle between Russian and Ukrainian forces for months. The town is located in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk province, one of four regions that Moscow illegally annexed in September and has been trying to take full control of 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.

However, a Ukrainian military commander quickly rejected the Russian claim, stating that “severe” fighting was still ongoing and that Ukrainian troops were managing to keep “the situation under control in difficult conditions.”

Image source: AFP

While the battle for the small town has become hugely symbolic, 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 think tank also said that Russian information operations have “overexaggerated the importance of Soledar,” a small settlement, and that the 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. But his claim was quickly challenged by both the Russian and Ukrainian militaries, 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’s shakeup this week of 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.

Image source: UPI

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.

The situation in Soledar, and the overall conflict in eastern Ukraine, is highly fluid and the situation on the ground is difficult to confirm.

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