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



Russia claimed Wednesday that its forces had seized control of Soledar, a small city in eastern Ukraine that is a gateway to the fiercely fought-over city of Bakhmut. But even as Moscow boasted of a rare victory, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that it was once again replacing the top commander of the war.

In the surprise shuffle, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced he was removing Gen. Sergei Surovikin, who had led President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine for just over three months. Surovikin, who earned the nickname “General Armageddon” for his brutal tactics in Syria, will be replaced by Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the longtime chief of the Russian military’s General Staff.

Surovikin was named Gerasimov’s deputy, an operational demotion though technically not a reduction in rank.

A Defense Ministry statement suggested that the reshuffle was linked to an “expansion” of the operation as well as to “improve the quality … and effectiveness of the management of Russian forces.” But Russia has repeatedly changed commanders as the war has failed to meet Putin’s objectives, beginning with the thwarted effort to take Kyiv last spring, and the humiliating defeats in the fall in the Kharkiv region in the northeast and Kherson city in the south.

Some analysts quickly suggested that the move would put heavy pressure on Gerasimov to deliver successes, perhaps in renewed offensive operations in the spring.

The changes in the leadership ranks came as Russia claimed to have seized control of Soledar in the Donetsk region. If confirmed, it would be its first significant territorial advance after months of defeats and retreats.

Ukraine denied Russia’s claims, though its troops in the area have been under severe pressure in recent days.

The claim of a Russian victory was made by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary group, which has been leading a bloody campaign to take Soledar and neighboring Bakhmut, hoping to shift the battlefield narrative.

In audio messages published to his Telegram channel late Tuesday night, Prigozhin said his forces had captured Soledar. “Wagner units have taken the whole territory of Soledar under control,” he said. “There are street battles ongoing. The number of prisoners taken will be announced tomorrow.”

Prigozhin also appeared to release a photograph of himself surrounded by Wagner forces in what he claimed to be one of Soledar’s salt mines, which Ukrainian and Russian troops have been battling over for weeks. The Washington Post could not independently verify the photographs.

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Kyiv denied Prigozhin’s claims, saying that Russia was still “trying” to take the town. A grinding, months-long artillery offensive has nearly obliterated Soledar and Bakhmut.

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

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

“After suffering losses, the enemy once again carried out replacement of its units, increased the number of Wagnerites, tried to break through the defense of our troops and fully capture the city, but was unsuccessful,” Malyar wrote.

On Wednesday, the Russian Defense Ministry said Soledar had been “blocked from the north and south by Airborne Forces units.”

“The Russian Air Force is striking enemy strongholds, and assault units are fighting in the city,” Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.

Russian proxy officials in eastern Ukraine also claimed that Soledar had been captured.

Control areas as of Jan. 10

Sources: Institute for the Study of War, AEI’s Critical Threats Project

Control areas as of Jan. 10

Sources: Institute for the Study of War, AEI’s Critical Threats Project

Control areas as of Jan. 10

Sources: Institute for the Study of War

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

Thousands of soldiers on each side have died fighting over Soledar and Bakhmut in recent months, even though military experts say neither place appears to be of tremendous strategic value. Capturing Bakhmut would be a territorial advance for Russia toward other key Ukrainian cities in the Donetsk region, but experts have said it would be difficult for the Russian troops to push onward.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the battered and deserted city of Bakhmut last month and on Monday praised the “heroic” defenders of Soledar in his nightly address. “The area near Soledar is covered with corpses of the invaders. … This is what madness looks like,” Zelensky said.

Meanwhile, in an interview with The Post on Monday, Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said Russia had not “almost captured” the town.

“They have been capturing it for months, every day they report that they have captured it, but it is not happening,” Danilov said. “They are some storytellers. They are saying things that are absolutely not true.”

During a news briefing Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to confirm the capture of Soledar but said that there had been “positive dynamics” in the Russian advance.

“Although tactical military successes are very important, they come at a rather high price: the price of incredible heroism of our fighters,” Peskov said. “It’s another reason to be proud of our guys, who spare neither their lives nor their health to get 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 had killed up to 80 Ukrainian soldiers. Those claims could not be verified.

The latest changes to the Russian military leadership follow growing tensions between Prigozhin’s Wagner faction, which has led the charge in Bakhmut, and the regular military commanders in charge of Russia’s war. Prigozhin had praised Surovikin’s promotion to overall war 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 been in the service of the Ministry of Defense for decades.”

Gerasimov, the newly appointed commander, has faced persistent and heavy criticism by Russia’s pro-war bloggers for Moscow’s humiliating losses on the battlefield given his role 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 “demotion” and that he was “hanging by a thread.”

“For Gerasimov … it is a kind of demotion, or at least the most poisoned of chalices,” Galeotti wrote on Twitter. “It’s now on him. … But he needs some kind of win or a career ends in ignominy.” Galeotti added that the shuffle was a clear sign that fresh offensives are 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 appeared to snub both the Wagner chief and Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, who has also openly criticized several of Russia’s leading military figures.

Separately Wednesday, the Ukrainian and Russian human rights commissioners met on the sidelines of a forum in Ankara, Turkey, along with that country’s rights ombudsman — their first face-to-face meeting since October. Among the issues discussed were the potential creation of humanitarian corridors, a proposal to treat wounded Ukrainian soldiers in Turkey, and future prisoner exchanges.

“During the meeting … very important words were exchanged about the need for a cease-fire,” Russian human rights ombudswoman Tatyana Moskalkova wrote on her Telegram channel after the talks. “It is a prerequisite for preventing human rights violations. First of all, the right to life.”

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