Issued by CEMO Center - Paris
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Wagner Group claims to have captured Soledar for Russia

Wednesday 11/January/2023 - 03:46 PM
The Reference

Russia’s Wagner mercenaries claim to have seized full control over the eastern Ukrainian town of Soledar, where Russian and Ukrainian forces have been locked in intense urban fighting for days.

 “Wagner units have taken control of the whole territory of Soledar,” Yevgeny Prigozhin, the group’s founder, said in a statement carried by his press service early today. “No units other than Wagner PMC fighters were involved in the storming of Soledar.”

The announcement comes just days after two British volunteers went missing after heading towards the town to evacuate civilians.

Prigozhin said the city centre remained a “cauldron” of fighting and that Wagner would announce the “number of captives” later in the day. In a photo published by Prigozhin’s press service, the Kremlin-linked business magnate can be seen in combat uniform alongside Wagner fighters in what is identified as a salt mine below Soledar.

Russian state media reported that Wagner seized control of Soledar’s salt mines after “fierce fighting.” Soledar is located about 15km away from Bakhmut, the salt-mining city in the Donetsk region that has been nearly razed to the ground in months of fighting.

Soledar’s capture, if confirmed, would mark Moscow’s first battlefield success in months and is seen as a stepping stone to taking control of Bakhmut — and the wider Donetsk region that the Kremlin claims to have annexed.

Many of those troops in Soledar fighting with Wagner are violent criminals who were released from Russian prisons in exchange for a six-month tour of duty. It has been estimated that up to 35,000 convicts have been deployed to Ukraine with Wagner to accompany about 10,000 contractors.

The mercenary group is led by Prigozhin, nicknamed “Putin’s chef” for his links to the Russian president through his catering business, and operates around the globe in areas of Russian interest, including in Syria and parts of Africa.

Kyiv denies that Wagner’s forces are in control of Soledar.

“Soledar was, is and will be Ukrainian,” the Ukrainian military’s strategic communications branch said in a statement later on Wednesday.

It added that the photos of Prigozhin and Wagner fighters which Russian media said were taken in Soledar had in fact been taken elsewhere.

Kyiv disputes that Russian forces control Soledar and it was not possible to independently verify either side’s claims. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), the US think tank, also said today that claims that Russian forces had captured all of Soledar were false.

This week Ukrainian officials including President Zelensky have said that Russian forces had taken heavy losses in Soledar, with the ground being littered with bodies.

Hours after Prigozhin’s statement, the Kremlin said it wouldn’t “rush” to declare victory in Soledar but acknowledged a “positive dynamic in advances” there.

“Let’s not rush. Let’s wait for official announcements,” Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, told reporters.

The once-shadowy Prigozhin, who is under western sanctions, has stepped into the limelight following the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine. He has openly criticised the Russian military’s top brass for its handling of the war effort and was seen recruiting inmates at Russian prisons to fight with Wagner — despite mercenary groups being illegal under Russian law.

The ISW said this week that Prigozhin aimed to use Wagner’s claimed successes in Soledar to boost its reputation as a more effective fighting force than the Russian military.

Further north, Russian missiles landed on Ukraine’s second-largest city Kharkiv late Tuesday. The strike came hours after a surprise visit by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who vowed continued support for Kyiv against Russia’s invasion alongside her Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba.