Russia claims to control Soledar, a battlefield gain after months in retreat


Russia announced on Wednesday that its forces had taken control of Soledar, a small city in eastern Ukraine that is the gateway to the fiercely fighting city of Bakhmut. But even as Moscow bragged about the rare victory, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that it had once again replaced the top commander of the war.

In the unexpected turmoil, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced he would dismiss General Sergei Surovikin, who led President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in just over three months. Surovikin, who was nicknamed “General Armageddon” because of his brutal tactics in Syria, will be replaced by General Valery Gerasimov, the longtime Chief of the General Staff of the Russian army.

Surovikin was appointed Gerasimov’s deputy, a demotion although not technically a reduction in rank.

A statement from the Ministry of Defense said that the reshuffle was related to the “expansion” of operations as well as to “improve the quality … and efficiency of the management of Russian forces”. But Russia has repeatedly changed command as the war has fallen short of Putin’s goals, starting with the thwarted attempt to capture Kyiv last spring, and the humiliating defeats of its fall in the Kharkiv region. in the northeast and the city of Kherson in the south.

Some analysts are quick to suggest that the move will put heavy pressure on Gerasimov to achieve success, possibly in new offensive operations in the spring.

The changes in leadership came as Russia announced it had taken control of Soledar in the Donetsk region. If confirmed, it would be the first major territorial assault after months of defeat and retreat.

Ukraine denies Russia’s claim, although its troops in the region have come under heavy pressure in recent days.

The declaration of Russian victory was made by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary group, who led a bloody campaign to capture Soledar and neighboring Bakhmut, in hopes of changing the battlefield. .

In audio messages posted on his Telegram channel on Tuesday night, Prigozhin said his forces had captured Soledar. “Wagner units have taken control of the entire territory of Soledar,” he said. “There are street battles going on. The number of prisoners arrested will be announced tomorrow.”

Prigozhin also appeared to release a photo of himself surrounded by Wagner forces at what he claims is one of Soledar’s salt mines, where Ukrainian and Russian troops have been fighting for weeks. The Washington Post could not independently verify the photos.

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Kyiv denied Prigozhin’s claims, saying Russia was still “trying” to take over the town. A months-long artillery attack nearly wiped out Soledar and Bakhmut.

Serhiy Cherevaty, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Eastern Military Command, denied on Wednesday that Soledar was under Russian control. “That’s not true. Wait for details in [upcoming] Report of the General Staff,” Cherevaty told Ukrainian TV channel.

Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Hanna Malyar, also wrote on Telegram that the Russian attempt to capture the city had failed and fighting continued.

Malyar writes: “After suffering losses, the enemy again proceeded to replace units, increase the number of Wagnerites, attempt to break through our defenses and take the city completely, but without success.

On Wednesday, the Russian Defense Ministry said Soledar was “intercepted from the north and south by units of the Airborne Forces”.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said: “The Russian Air Force is attacking enemy positions and strike units are fighting in the city.

Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine also claimed that Soledar had been arrested.

Controlled areas as of January 10

Source: War Research Institute, AEI . Serious Threats Project

Controlled areas as of January 10

Source: War Research Institute, AEI . Serious Threats Project

Controlled areas as of January 10

Source: Institute for War Studies

“At the present time, according to the information I have, the Soledar center is already under the control of Wagner units,” Denis Pushilin, acting head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, told state television. Russia.

Thousands of soldiers on each side have been killed fighting in Soledar and Bakhmut in recent months, although military experts say neither place has great strategic value. Capturing Bakhmut would be a step toward Russian territory for other key Ukrainian cities in the Donetsk region, but experts say the Russian military will be unlikely to move forward.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the devastated and desolate city of Bakhmut last month and on Monday hailed Soledar’s defenders as “heroic” in his nightly speech. “The area near Soledar is covered with corpses of invaders. … This is what insanity looks like,” says Zelensky.

Meanwhile, in an interview with The Post on Monday, Oleksiy Danilov, Secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said Russia was not “close to capturing” the town.

“They’ve been holding it for months, they’re reporting every day that they’ve taken it, but it doesn’t happen,” said Danilov. “They are some storytellers. They are saying things that are completely untrue.”

During a press conference on Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to confirm Soledar’s arrest but said that there was “positive momentum” in Russia’s advance.

“Although tactical military successes are important, they come at a heavy price: the price of the incredible heroism of our fighters,” Peskov said. “It’s another reason to be proud of our boys, who spared their lives and health to achieve these tactical successes.”

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According to the Russian Defense Ministry, Russian forces also captured the village of Pidhorodne in the Donetsk region and killed 80 Ukrainian soldiers. Those claims cannot be verified.

The latest changes to the Russian military leadership come after rising tensions between Prigozhin’s Wagner faction, which led the offensive in Bakhmut, and Russia’s regular military commanders in charge of the war. Prigozhin praised Surovikin’s promotion to overall wartime commander in October.

On Tuesday, Prigozhin criticized the Defense Ministry, boasting that his combat experience was “in many ways significantly superior to those who have served the Ministry of Defense for decades”.

Gerasimov, the newly appointed commander, has faced persistent and heavy criticism from pro-war bloggers by Russia for Moscow’s humiliating losses on the battlefield as Chief of the General Staff. .

Mark Galeotti, an analyst and expert on Russian security affairs, wrote that Gerasimov’s appointment was also a kind of “degradation” and that he was “hanging the duck”.

“For Gerasimov… it was a kind of demotion, or at least the most tainted cup,” Galeotti wrote on Twitter. “Now it belongs to him. … But he needs some kind of victory or the career will end in disgrace. Galeotti added that the disturbance was a clear sign that new offenses were coming.

Meanwhile, Wednesday’s replacement of Surovikin, a favorite of Prigozhin, as well as the appointment of Alexander Lapin to lead Russia’s ground forces appear to have embarrassed both Wagner and Ramzan Kadyrov, who Chechnya, who has also publicly criticized some of Russia’s top military figures.

On Wednesday alone, the Ukrainian and Russian human rights commissioners met on the sidelines of a forum in Ankara, Turkey, along with that country’s human rights ombudsman – their first face-to-face meeting since October. Among the issues discussed were the possible creation of humanitarian corridors, the proposed treatment of wounded Ukrainian soldiers in Turkey and the future exchange of prisoners.

“During the meeting… very important words were exchanged about the need for a ceasefire,” said Russian human rights inspector Tatyana Moskalkova. Written on her Telegram channel after the talk. “It is a prerequisite for preventing human rights violations. The first is the right to life.”


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