Russia said on Friday that its forces had taken control of the salt-mining town of Soledar in eastern Ukraine, claiming to have made its first big battlefield gain after half a year of military setbacks.
Russian forces captured the town, long the focus of heavy fighting and bombardment, on Thursday evening, the defence ministry said.
It said this would make it possible to cut off Ukrainian supply routes to the larger town of Bakhmut, to the southwest, and trap remaining Ukrainian forces there.
Reuters was not able to immediately verify the claim. Ukraine said earlier on Friday that its forces were still holding out in Soledar after a “hot” night of fighting in what has become one of the bloodiest battlegrounds of the entire war.
“The capture of Soledar was made possible by the constant bombardment of the enemy by assault and army aviation, missile forces and artillery of a grouping of Russian forces,” Moscow’s defence ministry said.
Its statement credited the town’s capture to Russian troops and aviation without mentioning the role of the Wagner mercenary group founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Prigozhin issued a premature claim earlier this week that Soledar had already fallen, and said the fighting there was exclusively being waged by his men.
The capture of the town, if confirmed, would mark Russia’s first significant gain since last July. It follows months of Russian battlefield defeats and major retreats near Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine and from Kherson in the south.
It comes two days after a reshuffle in which Russia’s Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov was placed in direct charge of the war in Ukraine, in a move some analysts saw as slapping down Prigozhin but also lining up Gerasimov as the fall guy if the war continues to go badly for Russia.
Both sides have endured heavy losses in the battle for Soledar.
For Russia, it is a stepping stone towards capturing Bakhmut, which lies less than 10 km (6 miles) to the southwest, and marks incremental progress towards Moscow’s declared aim of capturing the entire Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
Soledar is the site of huge salt mines which have commercial value and could also be used to store weapons and ammunition out of range of Ukrainian missiles.
Ukraine says Russia is throwing wave upon wave of soldiers into a pointless fight for a bombed-out wasteland.
U.S. officials said a Russian victory in Soledar, or even in Bakhmut, a city ten times larger where the Russians have so far been repelled, would mean little for the overall trajectory of the war.
“Even if both Bakhmut and Soledar fall to the Russians, it’s not going to have a strategic impact on the war itself,” U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters at the White House, “and it certainly isn’t going to stop the Ukrainians or slow them down.”