The fate of Soledar in Ukraine’s Donbas region was hanging in the balance Friday, with Russia claiming that its forces had seized the salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine and Ukraine saying the fighting continues.
If Moscow’s claims bear out, it would be Russia’s first big battlefield gain after multiple military setbacks.
Serhiy Cherevatyi, spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern military command and a Ukrainian officer on the ground nearby both told Reuters that Soledar had not yet been captured.
Reuters was not immediately able to verify the situation in the town, which has become one of the bloodiest battlegrounds of the entire war, now in its 11th month.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address Friday that fighting continued in the town as well as in other parts of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region.
“The tough battle for Donetsk continues. The battle for Bakhmut and Soledar, for Kreminna, for other towns and villages in the east of our state continues,” he said.
CNN was also reporting Friday that units of the Ukrainian military insisted the battle is ongoing.
“Local battles continue in the city,” the 46th Airmobile Brigade said Friday on Telegram. “Orcs [Russians] are pressing from the outskirts to the center. Apparently, they are trying to bring down to the center those of our units who did not have time to leave the city. You will not succeed, Russians.”
Ukrainian officials said Thursday more than 500 civilians were trapped inside Soledar, including 15 children.
If Soledar’s capture is achieved, military experts say it would allow Russian forces, and the Wagner mercenary group helming the operation, to more readily target nearby Bakhmut.
The fighting in the area also has spurred infighting between Russia’s defense establishment and the Wagner multimillionaire leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin. According to Reuters, he has criticized the failings of the regular Russian army, and he issued a premature claim earlier this week that Soledar had already fallen.
Prigozhin has also complained that Russia’s defense ministry has not given the Wagner Group credit for its fight in Soledar. On Friday evening, the ministry changed course and issued a statement acknowledging the group’s role.
"As for the direct storming of Soledar's city quarters occupied by the armed forces of Ukraine, this combat task was successfully accomplished by the courageous and selfless actions of volunteers from the Wagner assault detachments," Russia’s defense ministry said.
The cracks within the Russian military command have widened after a reshuffle in military leadership earlier this week, when Russia’s Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov was placed in direct charge of Russia’s forces in Ukraine. Some analysts said the move was a slapping down of Prigozhin, while also lining up Gerasimov as the fall guy if the war continues to go badly for Russia.
Within Russia, victory in Soledar could boost the power of ultra-nationalist Prigozhin, whose Wagner Group of fighters-for-hire, including convicts recruited from prison with promises of pardons, has focused on the fight in that region.
Zelenskyy remarked Friday during his nightly address on how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, now in its 324th day, reportedly is eroding the Russian military establishment.
“They are already gnawing among themselves over who should be credited with some tactical advance. It's a clear signal of failure for the enemy. And it's another incentive for all of us to put more pressure on the occupier and to inflict heavier losses on the enemy,” he said.
U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Thursday at the White House that "even if both Bakhmut and Soledar fall to the Russians ... it's not going to have a strategic impact on the war itself. And it certainly isn't going to stop the Ukrainians or slow them down in terms of their efforts to regain their territory."
In a phone conversation Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba centered upon continuing robust security and economic assistance before the February anniversary of Russia’s unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine and beyond.
The top U.S. diplomat emphasized the United States’ enduring and unflinching support for Ukraine, as underscored by recent provisions of advanced air defense equipment and armored vehicles from U.S. stocks.
Finland has joined Poland in saying it could send German-made Leopard tanks to Ukraine as part of a Western coalition apparently being assembled to supply them.
France also is hoping to deliver AMX 10-RC light-combat tanks to Ukraine in two months' time, French Armed Forces Minister Sebastien Lecornu said.
A Russian foreign ministry official said Belarus may enter the conflict in Ukraine on the side of Russia. Russia used Belarus as a springboard to invade Ukraine in February 2022, but the border area is now heavily flooded making an imminent attack from there unlikely.
Ukraine’s central security agency announced Friday that it was holding countersabotage exercises along a section of the Ukrainian border with Belarus.
In an interview with the BBC, Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Ukraine is a de facto NATO member.
“I'm sure that in the near future, we'll become a member of NATO, de jure," he said.
Reznikov said his country has received the weapons and the training it needs to fight the Russian invasion.
Britain’s defense ministry said Russia's defense manufacturing sector is likely resorting to convict labor to meet wartime production demands, in an intelligence update Friday about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“In November 2022,” the report posted on Twitter said, “Uralvagonzavod (UVZ), Russia's largest tank manufacturer, told local media that it would employ 250 prisoners after meeting with the Federal Penal Service (FSIN).”
Russia has a long history of prison labor and in 2017 “forced labor as a specific criminal punishment was reintroduced,” the ministry said.
The British defense ministry said, “The prison population provides a unique human resource to Russian leaders to utilize in support of the 'special military operation' while willing volunteers remain in short supply.” (KB/VOA)