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Russia’s defence ministry on Friday claimed its forces had taken complete control of the frontline Ukrainian settlement of Soledar, known for its underground salt mines and tunnels, after weeks of heavy fighting in and around the town.

Kyiv has previously admitted difficulties in Soledar, but a spokesperson for a division of the Ukrainian army on Friday said the battle for the eastern town was not over. Observers, however, have noted Russian control over large parts of the settlement.

Soledar’s capture could make it harder for Ukraine to hold the nearby city of Bakhmut, which has gained symbolic importance for both sides and has become the centre of fierce frontline fighting. Taking Bakhmut would deliver the first meaningful military success for Moscow since last summer.

The Russian defence ministry said in a statement that its forces captured Soledar late on Thursday, adding that this was an important development for the “continuation of successful offensive operations” in the area.

“Taking full control of Soledar allows us to cut off the supply routes of the Ukrainian forces in [Bakhmut] and then blockade and take the remaining units into a ‘cauldron’,” Russia’s defence ministry said, meaning it aimed to encircle Ukrainian troops.

Soledar, which had a prewar population of about 10,000 people, lies north-east of the larger city of Bakhmut. The city has been at the heart of the fighting throughout the winter, with both sides suffering heavy losses in a grinding ground war.

Though analysts say a breakthrough at Bakhmut would not be a major turning point on the eastern frontline, it has gained importance for Ukraine as a symbol of resistance. In Russia, for some critics, it has also come to symbolise the Russian army’s failures, described as a “meat-grinder” where soldiers fight for days just to take a single building.

The battle has also revealed faultlines within Russia’s armed forces. As the defence ministry on Friday morning announced its claimed capture of Soledar, it listed the many ways Moscow’s forces had participated in the assault, stressing that air strikes were crucial for the campaign, and claimed its troops had conducted a special “covert manoeuvre”.

This appeared to be a direct response to repeated statements by Evgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner private military contractor group, that it was his contract troops alone that were on the ground in Soledar, and that no one else could claim credit for the offensive.

Asked on Friday why his perception of the battlefield landscape differed from that of the Russian defence ministry, Prigozhin said he would withhold comment because “the boat is already rocking”.

Later in the day, as many Russian pro-war military bloggers celebrated developments in Soledar, the press service of the defence ministry released an unusual second statement responding to “media reports” about the “composition” of forces on the ground in the area, the clearest sign yet that divisions in the armed forces are coming to the fore.

The “direct storming of Soledar”, the defence ministry admitted, was completed not by the army, but by Wagner. It also described the private military contractor group, which is made up in part of conscripts recruited from Russian prisons, as “courageous”.


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