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Russia is touting a rare military victory, but Ukraine disputes that claim

Updated January 13, 2023 at 1:35 PM ET

KYIV — After months of fighting, Russia's Defense Ministry says its forces captured the eastern Ukrainian town of Soledar — a claim that Ukrainian military officials denied and that prompted bitter infighting with a pro-Kremlin mercenary group involved in the offensive.

If taken, the salt-mining town would be a rare recent military victory for Russia in the war in Ukraine, now in its 11 month.

In a press briefing, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Russian forces had "liberated" Soledar overnight — and insisted the victory carried "important significance" for Russia's push to capture the wider Donetsk region.

A spokesperson for the Ukrainian military, Serhiy Cherevaty scoffed at that assessment —saying that Russia's statements "do not correspond to reality. Battles are going on in Soledar."

Indeed, amid days of intense fighting, there have been conflicting statements on who controlled Soledar — even amongst the Russian side.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Russian mercenary force the Wagner Group, claimed his fighters had singlehandedly seized the town as early as Tuesday.

Yet, in its initial statement claiming victory, Russia's defense ministry notably made no mention of Wagner contributions — the latest sign of political infighting between Prigozhin and the ministry's top brass that has escalated in recent months.

"The capture of Soledar was possible thanks to the constant fire power against our opponent by the ground and air forces, as well as rocket and artillery groups of the Russian armed forces," said the ministry spokesman Konashenkov.

"They constantly launched targeted strikes on Ukrainian positions in the city, preventing Ukraine from sending in reserves and munitions, as well as attempts to withdraw to other areas of defense," added Konashenkov.

The statement prompted an angry outburst by Prigozhin — and leading nationalist bloggers — who accused the Defense Ministry of trying to usurp Wagner's victory.

The ministry later issued a separate statement to its social media account crediting the "courageous and selfless action" in seizing portions of Soledar.

Unlikely to shift Moscow's fortunes in the war

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Russia's capture of Soledar "is and isn't significant," explains Karolina Hird, a Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. "Russian forces, throughout the course of this war, have struggled to make operationally significant gains to such a degree that when they do start making these tactical, small-scale block-by-block advances, those stand out."

Control of Soledar could allow Russia to cut off Ukrainian supply lines to nearby Bakhmut, another fiercely contested city seen as central to Russia's struggling efforts to control eastern Ukraine. While reaching Bahkmut may be Russia's goal, military experts say the fall of Soledar doesn't guarantee Bakhmut will be encircled and doesn't signify a huge turning point for the Russian military.

And the question remains whether minor tactical advances are worth the cost.

"The Ukrainians have very, very successfully pinned Russian forces up against Soledar and Bakhmut for six months," says Hird, "and used this to basically just continue pulling Russian troops, Russian equipment, to this area and basically burning through it."

While not an important military target, Bahkmut is connected to several highway systems, a critical ground line of communication and transportation for the Ukrainian forces.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently visited Bahkmut, just before his trip to Washington and speech to the U.S. Congress, where he presented representatives with a battle-torn Ukrainian flag signed by forces there.

"Hold Bakmut" has become a rallying cry across Ukraine. In his nightly address Monday, Zelenskyy said that the fighting in the area has bought Ukraine additional time and military power.

"Bakhmut is more about politics rather than war," says Oleh Zhdanov, a Ukrainian military expert. "From the military perspective, Bakhmut doesn't have operational or strategic significance. But the Russian Federation can turn this into an enormous wave of propaganda."

NPR's Lauren Migaki contributed to this report from Kyiv.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
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