Moscow/Lviv, Jan 11 (EFE).- Russia on Wednesday claimed victory in its battle for control of Soledar, an eastern salt-mining town that it has largely destroyed with months of shelling.
It acknowledged, however, that several hundred Ukrainian soldiers are still putting up resistance in its downtown area.
“Soledar has been blockaded from the north and the south by units of the Russian airborne forces. The Russian air force is carrying out strikes on enemy strongholds. Assault troops are taking part in battles inside the town,” Igor Konashenkov, spokesman for Russia’s Defense Ministry, told reporters.
Those remarks came hours after the head of Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, announced that his men had taken full control of Soledar.
An entrepreneur with close ties to the Kremlin who has gained notoriety in recent months for recruiting thousands of prisoners to fight in Ukraine, Prigozhin also acknowledged that fighting was still ongoing in the town.
But he said the Wagner troops were the only Russian assault units fighting in Soledar and that they were solely responsible for what have been Moscow’s first notable military gains in recent months.
Ukraine, however, offered a different view of the situation on the ground in that town, considered a bulwark of Ukraine’s defensive lines in that sector of the Donbas front.
“The Russians say Soledar is under their control. It is not true. Wait for the details in the General Staff’s report,” Serhiy Cherevaty, spokesman for the Ukrainian armed forces’ Eastern Group of Troops, was quoted as saying by Ukrinform, Ukraine’s national news agency.
Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, said for her part that “the enemy does not pay attention to the large losses of its personnel (in Soledar) and continues to storm actively.”
She added that Russia has sent replacement units to Soledar and has increased the number of Wagner mercenaries but “has not been able to break the Ukrainian defense and completely capture the city.”
Denis Pushilin, acting head of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, said the capture of Soledar will put Russian troops in a better position to control Bakhmut and Siversk and pave the way for a subsequent push on Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, the two largest cities of the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas currently held by Kyiv.
A “turning point” is being reached in the “liberation of the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic,” he added.
But in its latest report, the Washington DC-based think tank Institute for the Study of War said the capture of Soledar would not lead to an immediate encirclement of Bakhmut.
Control over Soledar “will not necessarily allow Russian forces to exert control over critical Ukrainian ground lines of communication into Bakhmut,” the ISW said.
Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy arrived Wednesday in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, where he was briefed by military leaders on the situation on the border with Belarus and the security measures adopted in that region.
“We understand that, apart from powerful statements, we see nothing powerful there, but we must be ready both at the border and in the regions,” the president said.
Although Moscow has deployed nearly 10,000 soldiers and a sizable number of tanks and military vehicles to that allied country, Ukraine’s armed forces for the moment have ruled out a new Russian attack from Belarusian territory (such as the one it launched at the start of the war last February).
Kyiv says the steady deployment of Russian troops to Belarus is solely aimed at prodding Ukraine to divert its own forces from the eastern fronts. EFE