Russia claims to have seized control of Soledar in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine after months of fierce fighting, state media reported on Friday.
Moscow said its forces seized the salt city on Thursday night and that this would allow them to cut off Ukrainian supply routes to the nearby city of Bakhmut.
However, the Ukrainian authorities have denied the information, stating that “heavy” fighting continued on Friday. “Our units are there; the city is not under Russian control,” Serhiy Cherevatyi, a spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern military command, told Reuters by phone.
Soledar is located in Donetsk, one of the four parts of Ukraine that Moscow annexed in September. The city had a population of 10,000 before Russia launched its invasion in February 2022. It has since been reduced to rubble.
The city’s fall would mark a rare victory for the Kremlin after a series of battlefield setbacks in its invasion of Ukraine. “On the night of January 12, the liberation of the city of Soledar, which is important for the continuation of successful offensive operations, was completed” in the Donetsk enclave, the Russian Defense Ministry said.
Moscow wants to gain full control of the area. His Wagner paramilitary group had previously claimed to have taken control of Soledar.
But on Friday, Ukraine said its forces were still holding out in Soledar after a “hot” night of fighting on one of the war’s bloodiest battlefields. The battle for the little town resulted in devastating losses on both sides.
The Ukrainian deputy defense minister earlier stated that Russia had “transferred almost all of its main forces to the Donetsk front” to ensure the capture of Soledar. “This is a difficult phase of the war,” Ganna Malyar acknowledged.
Moscow is seeking its first major victory after half a year of humiliating withdrawals. Kyiv says Russia is sending wave after wave of soldiers into a futile fight over a bombed-out wasteland.
It comes days after a reorganization of the Russian top command, in which the chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, was appointed as the new head of Russian forces in Ukraine.
General Sergei Surovikin, who had been commander-in-chief before Gerasimov, was moved down to be his deputy after only three months on the job.
Retired deputy air marshal Sean Bell told Sky News that the capture of Soledar was the “first victory for the Russians in quite some time” and that Moscow will not allow the Wagner Group to take credit for it.
Bell said there was likely to be “a management of [Yevgeny] Prigozhin’s rise to fame” in Moscow, referring to Wagner’s boss. He stated that from a military perspective, he expected Soledar to fall to the invading forces.
“The challenge is that Russia looks like a spent force at the moment,” he said, referring to the army’s slow operation to seize control of the entire Donbas region.
“It seems unlikely they have the resources, the men, the material to do it. What he does is a hint at where Russia will focus in a spring offensive. “It is to be hoped that this battle will continue,” he added.
If news of the capture is true, it will allow Russian forces to advance on Bakhmut, where fighting has been “house to house.” Moscow will also be able to use the extensive tunnel network of the Soledar salt mines – the largest in Europe – to advance into Ukrainian-controlled territory.
But Western officials said a Russian victory at Soledar, or even at Bakhmut, a city ten times the size where the Russians have been repelled so far, would mean little for the overall trajectory of the war.
“Even if both Bakhmut and Soledar fall into the hands of the Russians, it’s not going to have a strategic impact on the war itself,” US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters at the White House. “And it’s certainly not going to stop or slow down the Ukrainians.”
The Institute for the Study of Warfare, a Washington think tank, said the Russian takeover of Soledar “was not an operationally significant event and is unlikely to herald an imminent Russian encirclement of Bakhmut.”
The institute claimed that Russian information operations have “overstated the importance of Soledar,” a small settlement. He also argued that a long and difficult battle had contributed to the exhaustion of the Russian forces.
de facto NATO
For his part, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov declared that Ukraine had become a de facto member of the NATO alliance.
In an interview with the BBC, Reznikov was confident that Ukraine would receive weapons such as tanks and fighter jets. “For me, this concern about the next level of escalation is a kind of protocol,” he said.
“Both the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian military joined NATO. Real-world application, not legal theory (by law). Simply said, we are armed and dangerous.”
Western countries, including the United States, have supplied Ukraine with armored fighting vehicles and rockets but have yet to send heavier tanks, which Ukraine desperately needs.
President Andrzej Duda of Poland has said that his country will transfer a company’s worth (about 12–14) of the Leopard 2 tanks currently in service.
But on Friday, the German government claimed it had not received an official request from Poland or Finland to deliver the Leopard main combat tank to Ukraine.
The spokesman said there is no fear that Poland will deliver the Leopard main battle tank to Ukraine without Germany’s permission, which would violate re-export rules.
Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the British House of Commons defense committee, has urged London to supply heavy main battle tanks to Ukrainian forces.
The UK is considering supplying Ukraine with Challenger 2 main battle tanks. “NATO has been left on the sidelines,” the former British army officer told the BBC on Tuesday. “We should be doing a lot more to put out this fire, and we’re not.”