Russia claimed Friday its forces finally took the largely decimated salt mining town of Soledar in what would be the Kremlin’s first victory in months — but Kyiv insisted the fight for the town wasn’t over.
“The liberation of the town of Soledar was completed in the evening of Jan. 12,” said Lt. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, the Russian Defense Ministry’s spokesman, calling the development “important for the continuation of offensive operations in the Donetsk region.”
Taking control of the town would allow Russian forces to cut supply lines to Ukrainian forces in the strategically important city of Bakhmut, and then “block and encircle the Ukrainian units there,” Konashenkov said.
But Serhii Cherevaty, a spokesman for the Ukrainian army in the east, denied the town had fallen, saying that “there are still Ukrainian units in Soledar.”
There have repeatedly been conflicting reports over who controls Soledar, and news outlets have been unable to independently confirm either side’s claim.
CNN said a reporting team outside the town could hear mortar and rocket fire Friday afternoon and saw Ukrainian forces ferrying troops in what appeared to be an organized pullback.
A Ukrainian officer in the area also told Reuters by phone the Russians had not fully taken the town.
“Last night artillery fire was like from hell, both sides. From what I know, our boys have managed to exit some parts (of Soledar) in an orderly manner and now (assault) groups are counterattacking, but we still hold the town.”
Moscow has touted the battles for Soledar and Bakhmut as key to capturing the eastern part of the Donbas — and also as a way to exhaust the best Ukrainian forces and prevent them from pursuing counterattacks.
But Ukraine has argued that its fierce defense of the eastern strongholds of Soledar and Bakhmut — dubbed a “fortress” — has helped grind down Russian troops and halt their advance.
Just a day earlier, Kyiv officials claimed that more than 100 Russians were killed by a missile strike in the battle for Soledar, which has been waged by mercenaries from the Wagner Group.
Western officials and analysts say the two towns’ importance after months of bloody fighting is more symbolic than strategic, and capturing either could ultimately prove a pyrrhic victory achieved at too high of a cost.
Since its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Moscow has prioritized taking full control of the Donbas — a region made up of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, where it has backed a separatist insurgency since 2014.
Russia has seized most of Luhansk, but about half of Donetsk remains under Ukraine’s control.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a remote address to the Lithuanian parliament Friday that Kyiv did not intend to give any “breathing space” to Russian forces, and that the coming months will be “decisive” for Ukraine’s effort to defend itself.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington, DC-based think tank, said the fall of Soledar wouldn’t mark “an operationally significant development and is unlikely to presage an imminent Russian encirclement of Bakhmut.”
The institute said Russian information operations have “overexaggerated the importance of Soledar,” a small settlement, most of which now lies in ruins after relentless bombardment. And it argued that the long and difficult battle has contributed to the exhaustion of Russian forces.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby on Thursday also downplayed the significance of potential Russian gains in the area.
“Even if both Bakhmut and Soledar fall to the Russians … it’s not going to have a strategic impact on the war itself,” Kirby said. “And it certainly isn’t going to stop the Ukrainians or slow them down in terms of their efforts to regain their territory.”
Just hours before Russia’s disputed announcement, Ukraine reported there had been a heavy night of fighting. In a Telegram post early Friday, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, said Moscow “had sent almost all (its) main forces” to secure a victory in the east.
“This is a difficult stage of the war, but we will win,” Maliar added.
Konashenkov, the Russian Defense Department spokesman, said the storming of Soledar became possible thanks to massive air and artillery strikes and airborne troops’ maneuvers to envelop the city.
He didn’t mention the Wagner Group, which previously took credit for capturing Soledar. There have been reports of tensions between the regular army and the mercenaries — many of them former prisoners — working for the paramilitary group founded by Vladimir Putin’s close ally Yevgeny Prigozhin.
After Prigozhin, a catering mogul dubbed “Putin’s chef,” angrily accused the Defense Ministry of “constantly trying to steal Wagner’s victory,” the ministry changed course and acknowledged the group’s ”courageous and selfless action” to capture Soledar.
With Post wires