By Sebastian Shukla, Mick Krever and Katharina Krebs, CNN
Russia said Friday its forces had taken the small town of Soledar in eastern Ukraine following weeks of fierce fighting, in what would be Moscow’s first notable victory in months, although Ukraine denied the claim.
The capture of Soledar would represent a symbolic if not an especially strategic win for Putin after a long string of military setbacks dating back to last summer. But it does not suggest a significant capitulation of Ukrainian forces, nor a substantial change to the overall complexion of the war.
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.”
Members of Ukraine’s 46th Air Assault Brigade said they were “hanging on” in Soledar on Friday evening. A post on the 46th Brigade’s Telegram channel said: “We’re hanging on. But we are being surrounded. Heavy fighting continues inside the city.”
The post continued, “Apparently, the orcs [Russians] were able to cut off those who were near the railway station and Mine 7 and are making efforts to consolidate the encirclement.”
A Ukrainian soldier in the vicinity of Soledar told CNN Friday he believed he and his comrades had been left to surrender.
“It’s easier to leave us to surrender than to put effort into a breakthrough,” the soldier, whom CNN is not naming for security reasons, said on the phone. “It means more casualties.”
“Our units are being systematically pushed to the city center [by Russian forces] and split from each other.”
The soldier also said he expected a repeat of Russia’s conquest of Mariupol early in the war, when a group of soldiers held out in the city’s steel works. “The same happened in Mariupol,” the soldier said. “I’m 100% sure it will be like this with us. We will be left here, [the Russians] will take captive whom they can. Then we might be exchanged.”
One day prior, the same soldier told CNN that he felt his group had been “abandoned.”
“If there is no order to withdraw today, we will most likely not have time to leave,” he said. “We were told that we would be withdrawn. And now we аre just abandoned.”
“The last evacuation was three days ago,” he said. “The order was to hold out to the very end.”
A point of contention between Wagner and Russia’s Ministry of Defense
Taking Soledar would signify a victory for the Wagner private military company, whose mercenaries did much of the frontline fighting. The battle for Soledar became a point of contention between Wagner and the Russian Ministry of Defense, who had publicized competing claims about their roles in the fight.
Two days after citing only regular Russian forces for the assault on Soledar, the Russian Defense Ministry on Friday also credited Wagner troops for spearheading the “direct assault” on the eastern Ukrainian town.
The move appeared to be an effort at detente with the oligarch who runs Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, after a rift opened up between him and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
The Russian Defense Ministry’s crediting of Wagner came after the group posted a video on Telegram Thursday directly disparaging the ministry’s claim that regular Russian military forces have participated in the assault on Soledar.
Prior to Russian Defense Ministry’s acknowledgment of Wagner in the capture, Prigozhin posted a thinly veiled retort towards the ministry, saying that while the United States is “a serious adversary, at the moment it is not a key one” — the Russian Defense Ministry is.
The Wagner boss has rarely missed an opportunity to take a swipe at the Russian establishment.
In a series of recent videos Prigozhin was heard saying “once we conquer our internal bureaucracy and corruption, then we will conquer the Ukrainians and NATO … The problem now is that the bureaucrats and those engaging in corruption won’t listen to us now because for New Year’s they are all drinking champagne.”
In his Friday Telegram post, Prigozhin said “they constantly steal victory from Wagner PMC and talk about the presence of someone who is not clear, just to belittle their merits.” This appears to be another dig at the lack of acknowledgement of the fighting Wagner units have been doing around and in Soledar.
Sergey Markov, a pro-Kremlin Russian military blogger, said on Telegram Friday that the public feud and semi-insults between the leadership of the Ministry of Defense and PMC Wagner” was damaging Russia and “must be stopped immediately.”
The Defense Ministry statement on Friday appears to be an attempt to make peace with the oligarch.
“Offensive operations in this tactical direction, which ended with the defeat of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the capture of the city of Soledar, were carried out by a heterogeneous grouping of Russian troops according to a single plan, which provided for the solution of a complex of combat missions,” the statement said.
“As for the direct assault on the city blocks of Soledar occupied by the Armed Forces of Ukraine, this combat mission was successfully solved by the courageous and selfless actions of the volunteers of the Wagner assault squads,” it added.
This story has been updated.
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Katharina Krebs and Denis Lapin contributed to this report.