Russia’s military says it has captured the Ukrainian salt mine town Soledar after a long battle, calling it an “important” step for its offensive.
The victory would allow Russian troops to push on to the nearby city of Bakhmut, and cut off the Ukrainian forces there, a spokesman said.
This was a very confident and ambitious statement from Moscow.
But Ukrainian officials said the fight for Soledar was still going on and accused Russia of “information noise”.
The battle for Solar has been one of the bloodiest of the war.
The town is relatively small, with a pre-war population of just 10,000, and its strategic significance is debatable. But if it is confirmed that Russian forces have seized control of it, then there will likely be a big sigh of relief in the Kremlin.
Barely any walls there remained standing, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said this week. Describing almost apocalyptic scenes, he spoke of the nearby terrain as scarred by missile strikes and littered with Russian corpses.
His chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, compared the fight for Soledar and Bakhmut to one of the bitterest battles of World War One, at Verdun.
Regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said on Thursday that 559 civilians including 15 children remained in Soledar and could not be moved out.
The town’s significance for the Russian military is disputed by military analysts because of its relatively small size. The US-based think tank Institute for the Study of War said while it was likely that Russian forces had captured Soledar, it did not believe they would then be able to go on to encircle Bakhmut.
Nevertheless, if it becomes clear that Russia has taken it, then that will be seen in Moscow as progress – even a victory.
That is exactly what President Vladimir Putin needs as Russia has failed to capture a single town in Ukraine since July 2022. Since then, Moscow’s forces have suffered a whole series of embarrassing defeats.
Ukraine’s successful counter-attack pushed Russia almost completely out of the Kharkiv region in the northeast. In October, Russia’s Kerch bridge came under attack, with Russian forces retreating from the city of Kherson the following month.
Kherson had been the only regional capital that Russia had managed to seize since the invasion began and it was back in Ukrainian hands.
Capturing Soledar would be something for Moscow to present as some “good news” to the Russian people and the troops on the wintry front line.
But Serhiy Cherevatyi, spokesperson for Ukraine’s eastern military command, denied Soledar was in Russian hands: “We won’t give any more details as we do not want to reveal the tactical positions of our fighters.”
Deputy Defence Minister, Hanna Malyar, said fighting had been “hot in Soledar overnight”. Ukrainian fighters were “bravely trying to hold the defense”, she added, in what was a difficult stage of the war.
President Volodymyr Zelensky described Soledar, Bakhmut, and the wider defense of the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine as the top issue in his nightly address late on Thursday.
Western and Ukrainian officials have said much of the fighting in Soledar and Bakhmut is being done by the notoriously brutal Wagner mercenary group.
Its leader, 61-year-old Yevgeny Prigozhin, has claimed repeatedly over the past few days that his forces are the only units on the ground in Soledar. He said on Tuesday night that his mercenaries had seized the town, only to be contradicted by Russia’s defense ministry the next morning.
Daily updates from the Russian defense ministry have made no mention whatsoever of Wagner, and Friday’s briefing was no exception. The military said that paratroopers had played a key part in the capture of the town.
Mr. Prigozhin then released a statement saying he was “surprised” to read the defense ministry briefing. There “wasn’t a single paratrooper” in Soledar, he insisted, warning against “insulting [his] fighters” and “stealing others’ achievements”.
Analysts have long spoken of tensions between the military and Mr. Prigozhin’s Wagner group. The Russian oligarch has publicly criticized senior military leaders, including Gen Valery Gerasimov, appointed two days ago as overall commander of Russian forces in Ukraine.
While Russia has mobilized some 300,000 reservists for the war since the end of September, Prigozhin has looked to recruit extra numbers from Russia’s prisons.
Andriy Yermak told the French daily Le Monde that Russian criminals had been sent straight to their deaths on the front line: “Soledar is a scene of street battles, with neither side really in control of the town.”