The founder of a Russian mercenary force leading Moscow’s assault on the town of Soledar in eastern Ukraine claimed late on Tuesday that his troops had seized control of the town, which Kyiv denied.
The claim that Soledar had fallen to soldiers-for-hire working for Wagner Group could not be verified and Ukraine’s defense ministry said on Twitter just before midnight local time that Russia was still trying to capture the town. At close to 1 a.m. on Wednesday, Robert Magyar, a commander of a Ukrainian air reconnaissance group, said in a statement on Telegram that Ukrainian forces were still holding the town.
The assault is part of Russia’s broader push in the area around the city of Bakhmut that Moscow sees as important to achieving its goal of occupying all of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
If true, the fall of Soledar, a relatively small municipality, would be Russia’s first significant victory in months, since Ukraine regained momentum with its capture of the Kharkiv region in September and then the city of Kherson in November, successes of far greater magnitude that changed the course of the war.
The entrepreneur who started the Wagner Group, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, maintained in a post on the Telegram messaging app that his troops had control, though he added that urban battles were still being fought in the town.
“Units of the Wagner private military company have taken the entire territory of Soledar under their control,” he said, according to TASS’s translation of the post. “The city center has been surrounded, and urban warfare is underway. The number of captives will be announced tomorrow.”
In his nightly address on Tuesday, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine thanked the troops defending Soledar. “Today, I would like to pay special tribute to the warriors of the 46th separate airmobile brigade for their bravery and steadfastness in the defense of Soledar!” he said.
How a tiny, salt-mining town with a prewar population of 10,000 people became a focus of such a sustained assault by Wagner’s forces has been an open question. In his overnight address on Monday, Mr. Zelensky asked, “What did Russia want to gain there?”
The most critical factor is perhaps what Mr. Prigozhin and his mercenaries fighting there have to gain in terms of reputation. In Bakhmut, the Wagner Group, a private military contracting company that has recruited prisoners into its ranks, has become the main force leading the offensive for Russia, and the fighting has become bloodier.
Before the emergence of the Wagner Group’s claims on Tuesday, Britain’s defense ministry said in its daily intelligence update that Russian forces and the Wagner Group were likely now in control of most of Soledar after intense fighting over the past four days. The capture of the city, which is about six miles north of the city of Bakhmut, was likely to be part of “an effort to envelop Bakhmut from the north, and to disrupt Ukrainian lines of communication,” the update said.
A spokesman for the eastern group of Ukraine’s army, Serhiy Cherevatyi, said on national television on Tuesday that Russian artillery had struck Soledar 86 times over the past day. He said that the situation was “very challenging.”
The tactics employed by the Wagner Group have resulted in a high number of casualties. In recent days, reporters for The New York Times embedded with a Ukrainian drone crew on the front line saw the bodies of Russian fighters scattered across open ground in the area around Bakhmut. Images and videos on Ukrainian social media in recent days also appear to have come from these aerial reconnaissance missions and show similar scenes.
Some Ukrainian messaging around the battle for Soledar on Tuesday appeared to suggest that losing control of the city to Russian forces would not be a major setback. Mr. Zelensky emphasized the importance of his forces’ broader goal of retaking the eastern Donbas region.
“The result of this difficult and long battle will be the liberation of our entire Donbas,” he said in his Monday address.
Jan. 10, 2023
An earlier version of this article misstated the timing of the Russian claim of taking the town of Soledar. It was made on Tuesday, not Thursday.
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