The Ukrainian military has denied that Russian forces have surrounded and captured the eastern town of Soledar, following claims by the head of Wagner’s mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, that the town had fallen.
A spokesman for the Eastern Group of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Serhiy Cherevatii, said: “The Russians say it is under their control, that is not true.”
A Russian capture of Soledar and its vast salt mines would have symbolic, military and commercial value for Russia. But the situation in and around Soledar seemed fluid and none of the claims could be independently verified.
Prigozhin published a photo of himself with a group of his fighters and a tank that he said was taken in one of the salt mine tunnels in the southwestern part of the city.
Prigozhin also insisted that only units of his paramilitary company – many of whom were convicts who had been offered a pardon if they fought for him – took part in the fighting for the city.
Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Hana Maliar, said that “tough battles are being fought to keep Soledar.”
“The enemy does not pay attention to the heavy losses of its personnel and continues to actively attack.” The approaches to our positions are simply littered with the bodies of dead enemy fighters.”
However, Soledar was mentioned only once in the Ukrainian military’s morning summary, listing the town as one of several shelled areas in the Donetsk region.
Russian forces have recently focused their efforts on capturing Soledar as part of their ambitions to capture the nearby strategic city of Bakhmut and Ukraine’s larger eastern Donbass region, with fierce fighting in the city center in sub-zero temperatures over the past five days.
Prigozhin claimed late Tuesday that he had captured the entire city, surrounding Ukrainian forces in a “cauldron” in the center.
“Wagner’s units have taken control of the entire territory of Soledar.” In the center of the city, a cauldron was formed in which urban battles are fought. The number of prisoners will be announced tomorrow,” he added, without giving further details.
While Western military analysts have geolocated Wagner’s units in the center of the city, where heavy fighting is taking place for the main administrative building, the Russians claim to have captured the southwestern part of the city, where Ukraine recently built defenses near salt mines that looked more questionable.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense said earlier that Russian troops and Wagner fighters had likely taken control of most of Soledar after four days of advancing.
But Prigozhin’s comment that fighting continued in Soledar’s center suggests that Russian control was not complete, despite his statement that the entire city was in Wagner’s hands.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the military command did not mention control of Soledar on Tuesday night. He repeated his call for more Western weaponry, saying Russia was massing its forces to intensify its campaign, but gave no details.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry tweeted late Tuesday: “Even after suffering colossal losses, Russia is still maniacally trying to capture Soledar – home to the largest salt mine in Europe.”
Ukraine said earlier that its forces were still holding positions in Soledar, withstanding wave after wave of attacks by Russian forces seeking their first battlefield victory in months.
Some prominent Russian military bloggers called for vigilance regarding the situation in Soledar and stated that intense fighting continued overnight in the center and on the outskirts.
The Institute for the Study of War was also cautious about the Russian claims, suggesting earlier announcements that the city had been taken, and noting that its fall could prove of limited value in the battle for Bakhmut.
“Even taking the most generous Russian claims at face value,” the think tank said in an update Tuesday night, “the capture of Soledar would not amount to an immediate encirclement of Bakhmut. Control of Soledar will not necessarily allow Russian forces to gain control of critical Ukrainian land lines of communication to Bakhmut.
Taking Soledar, however, would be Russia’s biggest gain since August, after a series of humiliating retreats for much of the second half of 2022. Russian forces have been fighting for months to capture Bakhmut.
But any victory would come at a high cost, with troops on both sides suffering heavy casualties in some of the most intense fighting since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly 11 months ago.
In recent days, the Kiev government has released pictures showing what it says are dozens of dead Russian soldiers scattered across muddy fields.
Reuters contributed to this report