Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed Friday that its forces had seized control of Soledar, a small salt mining city in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, in what would be its first significant territorial gain after a string of retreats in recent months. But Ukrainian officials disputed the assertion.
Russian news agencies reported that Moscow’s forces had evacuated 170 people to the city of Shakhtarsk, farther back in Russian-occupied territory.
Meanwhile, the senior Ukrainian regional official, Donetsk governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said that nearly 600 residents — out of a prewar population of more than 10,000 — remained in Soledar and were trying to survive a “bloodbath.”
The claims of Russian and Ukrainian officials could not be verified independently.
“On the evening of Jan. 12, the liberation of the city of Soledar was completed, which is important for the continuation of successful offensive operations in the Donetsk direction,” Russian defense ministry spokesman Lt. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said during a briefing.
But a spokesman for the Eastern Group of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Serhiy Cherevaty, said “Fighting continues in Soledar.” Cherevaty said he could not say how many Ukrainian forces remained in Soledar, or in what parts of the city.
Russia’s Wagner mercenary group has been leading a months-long push to try to seize Soledar and the neighboring larger city of Bakhmut, though military analysts question the strategic value. Some have suggested that Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who leads Wagner, is trying to score a public relations win by showing his forces able to seize territory where regular Russian troops have failed.
“Wagner units have taken the whole territory of Soledar under control,” Prigozhin said in audio messages published to his Telegram channel late Tuesday, alongside photos of what appeared to be Prigozhin with Wagner fighters in Soledar’s salt mines.
Early Friday morning, Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said that overnight battles had been “thriving.”
“The enemy … raised the high intensity of the attack. Our fighters are trying hard to defend themselves,” Malyar wrote on the Telegram messaging platform.
And in a statement on Friday evening, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the fight was not finished. “The tough battle for Donetsk region continues, the battle for Bakhmut and Soledar, for Kreminna, for other towns and villages in the east of our country continues,” Zelensky said.
Soledar and Bakhmut have been the focus of a bloody, grinding artillery battle since late summer.
But even if Russia’s claims are confirmed, analysts said it would be a largely Pyrrhic victory. The battle for Soledar and Bakhmut has killed thousands of soldiers on each side. Many on the Russian side are ex-convicts who were offered freedom if they joined the fight. The two cities are mostly empty and largely destroyed.
“The Russians have literally marched on the bodies of their own soldiers, burning everything on their way,” Kyrylenko, the regional governor, said. He claimed that more than 100 Russian troops had been killed in the previous 24 hours.
The fight for Soledar has become especially symbolic for Wagner and its leader Prigozhin.
In recent days, Prigozhin has repeatedly asserted that Wagner was wholly responsible for the city’s capture. His remarks reflected growing factionalism in the Russian military between groups such as Wagner and other paramilitary forces, and the regular military.
Earlier in the week, the Russian Defense Ministry announced a shake-up of its war commanders that seemed partly intended to address this factionalism. Col. Gen. Sergei Surovikin, who was supported by Prigozhin, was demoted in favor of Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff. The shuffle now gives Russia’s highest-ranking military officer direct operational control of the war.
Later Friday, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement explicitly stating that the offensive against Soledar was “successfully carried out by volunteers of the Wagner assault squads.”
David L. Stern in Mukachevo, Ukraine, contributed to this report.