World

Russian Mercenary Group Says It Has Taken Contested Ukrainian Town

KYIV — The head of a Russian mercenary group fighting in Ukraine claimed on Tuesday that his fighters had seized the town of Soledar, the site of brutal combat recently, which if true would mark the first significant Russian victory after months of setbacks.

In a statement on the Telegram app, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin said troops of his Wagner Group were in control throughout the town, characterizing the remaining fighting as a mop-up operation — a claim that could not immediately be verified and was not confirmed by Ukraine.

“A cauldron has been formed in the center of the city, in which urban battles are being fought,” Mr. Prigozhin said.

Earlier in the day, Britain’s defense ministry said in its daily intelligence update that Russian forces were likely in control of most of Soledar after four days of particularly intense fighting, with heavy casualties, against fierce Ukrainian resistance.

In a bloody back-and-forth over a small patch of territory, Soledar had become the focal point of Russia’s monthslong campaign to seize the city of Bakhmut several miles to the southwest. The Kremlin has made Bakhmut, in turn, the centerpiece of its drive to occupy all of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, devoting resources and spilling blood there out of proportion to the city’s size.

The battle highlights the war’s return to grinding attrition in the last two months, after a period of swift offensives over wide swaths of land. The fighting in Soledar has also brought national and international attention to a small town that was previously best known for its cavernous salt mine.

“Everything is completely destroyed. There is almost no life left,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said of Soledar in his Monday night video address. He asked the same question many analysts and experts were posing: “What did Russia want to gain there?”

One answer may lie in the agenda of the Wagner Group and what it hopes to gain in terms of reputation if it manages to seize Soledar and even Bakhmut. It would allow the Russians — and Wagner — to claim at least a small triumph for their troubled war effort.

A Ukrainian military vehicle speeding through a destroyed village near the frontline town of Kreminna, in the Luhansk region, on Tuesday.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

In and around Bakhmut, the Wagner Group, which has recruited prisoners into its ranks, has become the main force leading the offensive for Russia, and the fighting has been brutal. Ukrainian and American officials say the Russians, particularly Wagner, are treating their fighters as cannon fodder, heedless of heavy casualties. In recent days, New York Times reporters embedded with a Ukrainian drone crew saw the bodies of Russian fighters scattered across open ground in the area around Bakhmut.

“The whole land near Soledar is covered with the corpses of the occupiers,” Mr. Zelensky said. “This is what madness looks like.”

The State of the War

  • Battling for Bakhmut: Ukraine and Russia are going toe to toe in the key eastern city. That stands in contrast to Ukraine’s strategy elsewhere along the front line, where it succeeded by avoiding direct confrontations.
  • Western Escalation: A cease-fire proposal seemingly aimed at splintering Western unity has instead been met with an escalation of military involvement by Ukraine’s allies.
  • New Equipment: The Western allies’ provision to Ukraine of infantry fighting vehicles signals their support for new offensives in coming months.
  • Adapting to Survive: The war has taken a severe toll on Ukraine’s economy. But it has also pushed Ukrainians to restructure parts of the economy at lightning speed.

The stiff Ukrainian resistance in the area has bought time to ferry reinforcements and new equipment to the front, he said.

Taking Soledar would give Moscow’s forces new locations to place artillery and put pressure on Ukrainian supply lines that run toward both Bakhmut and the Ukrainian-held town of Siversk to the north.

Bakhmut, a small city, has been mostly depopulated over months of devastating shelling. Its strategic value, military analysts say, is as a crossroads for some of the region’s highways. Capturing it would put Russian forces in better position to advance on the major Ukrainian-held cities in the Donbas, the industrial hubs of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk to the northwest.

A spokesman for the eastern group of Ukraine’s army, Serhiy Cherevatyi, said on national television on Tuesday that Russian artillery had struck Soledar 86 times over the past day. He said the situation was “very challenging.”

The fighting is a stark reminder of the way the rhythms of the war have changed since the fall, when Ukraine swiftly recaptured hundreds of squares miles of territory in the north and south. Now, as winter impedes such big offensives, the fiercest fighting comes in places like Soledar and Bakhmut, with bloody street-to-street battles in which gains are measured in yards.

A Ukrainian soldier from the 59th Mechanized Brigade awaiting orders to fire artillery into Pisky on Monday.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

But more mobile operations are expected to return in the coming months, and Ukraine’s intense lobbying for its allies to provide armored vehicles appears to be paying off.

Britain’s government confirmed on Tuesday that it is considering sending some of its Challenger II tanks to Ukraine — they would be the first Western main battle tanks supplied to Kyiv’s forces — while Ukraine continues to press Germany for its Leopard II tanks. Last week, the France, Germany and the United States all agreed to send armored fighting vehicles, which are less heavily armed and armored than tanks, to Ukraine for the first time.

Russia has repeatedly warned the United States and its allies against sending more sophisticated weapons to Ukraine, calling it a provocation or escalation. Western officials have been wary of being drawn more deeply in the conflict, determined not to get involved in a direct confrontation with Russia, and continue to refuse combat aircraft and long-range missiles requested by Ukraine.

But one taboo after another has fallen. After months of debate, the Biden administration has agreed to send a battery of the most advanced American air defense system, the Patriot missile, and Germany has said it will supply another.

U.S. officials said on Tuesday that Ukrainian troops would travel to Fort Sill in Oklahoma for training in using the Patriot, a complex system that can require close to 100 people to operate. A challenge throughout the war has been teaching Ukrainians to use unfamiliar weapons systems, and most of that training has taken place in Germany.

The arrival of more tanks for Ukraine’s embattled forces would come just in time. After nearly a year of heavy fighting, much of Kyiv’s armored fleet has been worn down and is in desperate need of repair and replacement. Some Ukrainian units have suffered so many vehicle losses that captured Russian tanks make up large chunks of their inventory.

For all the intensity of the last few days, the battle for Soledar, like that for Bakhmut, has gone on since the summer, meaning Ukrainian forces have had an ample time to build entrenchments outside the town in case it were to fall, slowing a Russian advance.

A destroyed church in Bohorodychne, in the Donetsk region, on Sunday.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

Military analysts have questioned the Russian willingness to suffer heavy losses over the Bakhmut area, which they say has limited importance. Russian forces are exhausted from nearly a year of heavy fighting and should focus instead on stabilizing a front line that stretches more than 600 miles, analysts have said.

But Ukraine has responded in kind to the offensive, throwing its own forces into the fray to keep the area from falling to the Russians.

The Wagner Group, bearing the brunt of the fighting for Russia in and around Bakhmut, is controlled by Mr. Prigozhin, who gained fame as a restaurateur, became a close associate of President Vladimir V. Putin and parlayed that relationship into a business empire. Mr. Prigozhin is thought to want a victory in Bakhmut to boost his own political standing at home.

Analysts reviewing drone videos of the heavily contested city of Bakhmut from their unit headquarters last week.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research group, noted in an analysis on Monday that Mr. Prigozhin “continues to use reports of Wagner Group success in Soledar to bolster the Wagner Group’s reputation as an effective fighting force.”

Ukrainian officials, while acknowledging the intensity of the battle in the Bakhmut area, have also suggested that losing the city to Russian forces would not be a major setback. Mr. Zelensky, in his overnight address, emphasized the broader goal of retaking all the Russian-occupied territory.

“The result of this difficult and long battle will be the liberation of our entire Donbas,” he said.

Reporting was contributed by Lara Jakes, Stephen Castle, Helene Cooper and Carly Olson.

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