Russian mercenary group Wagner claimed control of the town of Soledar on Wednesday, the scene of heavy fighting in eastern Ukraine, a claim immediately disputed by Kyiv. Even the Kremlin called for “take your time” to declare victory.
“There is no need to be in a hurry. We will wait for official statements,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the press, considering that there was “a positive dynamic in the advances” of Russian forces and hailing the “fantastic heroism” of the military.
Soledar, once known for its salt mines, is located near the larger town of Bakhmout, which Ukrainians have fiercely defended for several months against waves of onslaught from Russian forces.
Soledar’s strategic importance is disputed, but his capture would allow Moscow to finally score a military victory after several humiliating setbacks since last September, and for Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin to bolster his growing influence on the Russian political scene.
“Wagner’s units have taken control of the entire territory of Soledar,” Prigojine said Wednesday morning via his social media service.
The “urban battles” continue
He added, however, that “urban battles” continued in pockets of resistance in the city centre, making the extent of the Russian group’s control over Soledar uncertain.
Russian state news agency RIA Novosti released a photograph of Prigozhin with armed fighters, claiming it was taken in the Soledar salt mines.
The Ukrainian army denied these claims, assuring that the town of Soledar “was, is and always will be Ukrainian”. “It is not true” that Prigozhin is inside the Soledar salt mines, the Ukrainian military said.
The AFP was unable to independently verify the situation on the ground.
Prigozhin said the Ukrainian “prisoner count” would be made public on Wednesday.
The Russian military had no immediate comment on this statement by Wagner, whose influence has grown significantly since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Many analysts believe that there is fierce competition between Wagner and the Russian army. Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed that Soledar had been invaded “exclusively” by Wagner units, without the help of the army.
One of the main leaders of the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, Denis Pushilin, for his part considered that the announcement of Soledar’s capture constituted a “turning point”.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said this week that his troops were resisting “violent attacks” in Soledar. On Tuesday night, he reported a “difficult situation” in the Donetsk region, where Soledar is located.
The British Ministry of Defense said on Tuesday that the Russian army and Wagner’s units had made “tactical advances” at Soledar over the past four days and were “probably trying to encircle Bakhmut from the north” and “disrupt Ukrainian lines of communication”. .
According to this source, part of the fighting is to control the entrance to an old salt mine in Soledar, as its tunnels pass under the front line and can be used to “infiltrate behind enemy lines”.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, Russian shelling hit Kharkiv late on Tuesday, hours after a surprise visit to this northeastern Ukraine city by German diplomatic chief Annalena Baerbock.
Invited by her Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kouleba, who accompanied her to Kharkiv, Ms. Baerbock assured that Ukraine can count on “solidarity” and “support” from Germany.
The minister said she had provided “a new package” of aid, including 20 million euros for mine clearance and the same amount for the development of the Starlink Internet access network. She also announced new deliveries of generators for Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, systematically bombed by Russia.
For his part, Kouleba urged Germany to provide Ukraine with heavy armor. “The longer this decision is postponed, the more casualties there will be, the more civilian deaths there will be,” he said.
meeting in turkey
A meeting was held Tuesday in Turkey between Ukrainian and Russian human rights officials Dmytro Loubinets and Tatiana Moskalkova, a rare meeting at this level between officials from the two countries for several months.
The two representatives “discussed a wide range of humanitarian issues and cases related to providing human rights assistance to citizens of both countries,” Loubinets said on his social media on Wednesday. “Humanitarian aid to Ukrainian and Russian citizens” was well mentioned, indicated Ms. Moskalkova in turn.