Russia said Friday that its forces on the frontline of the bitter fight for control of eastern Ukraine have achieved their first victory in several months of grinding conflict.
After some of the war’s most intense combat, Russia now controls the mining town of Soledar in the Donbas region, known for its extensive underground tunnels and salt mines, Moscow’s defense ministry said Friday. There was no immediate confirmation from Ukrainian officials, who have pushed back against Russian claims of progress in recent days.
NBC News has not verified the claims of either side.
The capture of Soledar would represent a morale-boosting breakthrough for the Kremlin after repeated setbacks on the battlefield and rare signs of disquiet at home as the war approaches the one-year mark.
The fighting in the area has been notable for the prominent role played by fighters from the Wagner group of mercenaries, whose head has become a public face of Russia’s war in recent month behind vocal criticism of the Kremlin’s military leaders.
Russia may now be a step closer to taking Bakhmut, a nearby city that has been devastated by shelling — now in freezing winter temperatures — and remains an important national symbol of Ukrainian defiance.
Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of President Vladimir Putin, had claimed victory in Soledar earlier this week and boasted on social media that his forces were in sole charge of the town.
But Russia’s defense ministry had stopped short of announcing the news and made no mention of Wagner fighters’ role.
“On the evening of January 12, the liberation of the city of Soledar was completed, which is important for the continuation of successful offensive operations in the Donetsk direction,” Lt. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said according to state news agency Tass.
Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar wrote on the Telegram messaging app earlier Friday that “The night in Soledar was hot, battles continued.”
News of the breakthrough in Soledar, which is in the eastern Donetsk region, follows the replacement of the commander of Russian forces in Ukraine on Wednesday after just 3 months in charge.
The head of the local Ukrainian administration, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said Tuesday only 500 people were left in Soledar, most of them elderly.
The capture of Soledar has a military purpose for Russia as a whole, but also a personal goal of bolstering Prigozhin’s reputation, analysts said.
“The salt mines are located in strategically important underground tunnels — there’s a 200km (124 miles) tunnel network in that area, British intelligence has found, and they say those tunnels are a battleground: whoever takes them can infiltrate behind enemy lines quite effectively,” said Samuel Ramani, an expert in politics and international relations at the University of Oxford.
“The next step would be to advance on Bakhmut but they would have to encircle the city and they are still having problems with that.”