Russian forces have taken the town of Soledar in eastern Ukraine, according to Russia’s defense ministry, in what would be Moscow’s first significant victory in months.
Russia took control of Soledar on Thursday evening, the ministry said in a Friday briefing.
Ukraine’s armed forces have denied Moscow’s claim. Serhiy Cherevaty, a spokesman for the Eastern Group of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, told Ukrainian outlet RBC-Ukraine that Russia’s claim of capturing Soledar is “not true,” adding that “fighting is going on in the city.”
In recent days there have been competing claims over who has control of the town amid fierce fighting. Wagner, the Russian private military company, said it had taken complete control of Soledar on Tuesday, a claim refuted by Ukraine. Russian forces had fought hard to take the town, but more battles remained, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Thursday.
On Friday morning, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said that fighting overnight had been “hot.”
The taking of Soledar would mark Russia’s first gain in the Donbas region for months – offering President Vladimir Putin some welcome news after a string of defeats on the battlefield since last summer.
The significance of the town in military terms is minimal. However, its capture allows Russian forces, and especially the Wagner mercenary group, to turn their focus on nearby Bakhmut, a key target.
Wagner posted a video on Telegram Thursday directly disparaging the Russian defense ministry’s claim that regular Russian military forces have participated in the assault on Soledar.
Which Russian forces are responsible for the assault in eastern Ukraine has become a key point of contention in the machinations of Russia’s power structure.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said Wednesday that regular Russian forces were operating in and around Soledar, without mentioning Wagner.
Taking Soledar would represent a symbolic PR win for the man who runs Wagner – oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has frequently criticized Moscow’s management of the “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine.
One Ukrainian soldier in Soledar had on Thursday evening described to CNN the desperate situation on the ground.
“We tried to withdraw ourselves, but the orcs (a pejorative Ukrainian term for Russian troops) are already there,” he said over the phone. CNN is not identifying the soldier for security reasons.
“If there is no order to withdraw today, we will most likely not have time to leave,” he added. “We were told that we would be withdrawn. And now we аre just abandoned.”
The soldier said that his group had run out of food, were running low on water, and had wounded colleagues, but still had some ammunition.
“The last evacuation was three days ago,” he said. “The order was to hold out to the very end. Judging by the sounds of the battle, our neighbors (other units) either withdrew or were ordered to withdraw. We were told to hold out.”