Russia said on Friday that its forces had taken control of the salt-mining town of Soledar in eastern Ukraine, claiming to have made its first big battlefield gain after half a year of military setbacks.
However, the spokesperson for Ukraine’s eastern military command, Serhiy Cherevatyi, denied that Russian forces had seized control of Soledar. Reuters was not able to immediately verify the situation in the town.
Russia’s defence ministry said its forces had captured the town, long the focus of heavy fighting and bombardment, on Thursday evening. It said this would make it possible to cut off Ukrainian supply routes to the larger town of Bakhmut, to the southwest, and trap remaining Ukrainian forces there.
Ukraine said earlier on Friday that its forces were still holding out in Soledar after a “hot” night of fighting in what has become one of the bloodiest battlegrounds of the entire war.
“The capture of Soledar was made possible by the constant bombardment of the enemy by assault and army aviation, missile forces and artillery of a grouping of Russian forces,” Moscow’s defence ministry said.
The ministry statement credited the town’s capture to Russian troops and aviation without mentioning the role of the Wagner mercenary group founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Prigozhin, who has harshly criticised the failings of the regular army, issued a premature claim earlier this week that Soledar had already fallen, and said the fighting there was exclusively being waged by his men.
In comments issued through his press service on Friday, and apparently aimed at the defence establishment, he complained about “infighting, corruption, bureaucracy and officials who want to stay in their positions” and what he called constant attempts to “steal victory” from Wagner.
The capture of the town, if confirmed, would mark Russia’s first significant gain since last July. It follows months of Russian battlefield defeats and major retreats near Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine and from Kherson in the south.
It comes two days after a reshuffle in which Russia’s Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov was placed in direct charge of the war in Ukraine, in a move some analysts saw as slapping down Prigozhin but also lining up Gerasimov as the fall guy if the war continues to go badly for Russia.
Both sides have endured heavy losses in the battle for Soledar.
Around 100 people have been evacuated from Soledar to the nearby Russian-held town of Shakhtarsk, RIA news agency quoted a local official as saying. Ukraine said on Thursday more than 500 civilians including 15 children were trapped inside Soledar.