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The Wagner Group claims to have taken Soledar, a town in eastern Ukraine

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KYIV – The leader of a Russian mercenary group fighting in Ukraine claimed on Tuesday that his fighters had captured the town of Soledar, the site of brutal fighting recently, which, if true, would mark the first victory importance of Russia after months of setbacks.

In a statement on the Telegram app, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin said troops from his Wagner group controlled the entire city, calling the remaining fighting a mopping up operation – a claim that could not immediately be verified and was not confirmed. has not been confirmed by Ukraine. .

“A cauldron has been formed in the center of the city, in which urban battles take place,” Prigozhin said.

Earlier today, the UK Ministry of Defense said in its daily information update that Russian forces probably controlled 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 months-long campaign to seize the town of Bakhmut several miles to the southwest. The Kremlin has made Bakhmut, in turn, the centerpiece of its drive to occupy the entire eastern region of Donbass in Ukraine, devoting resources and bloodshed there out of all proportion to the size of the city.

The battle highlights the war’s return to crushing attrition over the past two months, following a period of rapid offensives across large swaths of land. The fighting in Soledar has also drawn 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,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said of Soledar in his Monday night video address. He asked the same question that many analysts and pundits were asking: “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 notoriety if it manages to take over Soledar or even Bakhmut. This would allow the Russians – and Wagner – to claim at least a small triumph for their troubled war effort.

In and around Bakhmut, the Wagner Group, which recruited prisoners into its ranks, became the main force leading the offensive for Russia, and the fighting was brutal. Ukrainian and American officials say the Russians, especially Wagner, treat their fighters like cannon fodder, unconcerned about heavy casualties. In recent days, New York Times reporters embedded with a Ukrainian drone crew have seen the bodies of Russian fighters strewn across open ground in the area around Bakhmut.

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

Strong Ukrainian resistance in the region bought time to get reinforcements and new equipment to the front, he said.

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

Bakhmut, a small town, was largely depopulated during months of devastating bombardments. Its strategic value, according to military analysts, is as a junction for some of the region’s highways. Its capture would put Russian forces in a better position to advance on the main Ukrainian cities of Donbass, the industrial centers of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk in the northwest.

A spokesman for Ukraine’s Eastern Army Group, Serhiy Cherevatyi, told state television on Tuesday that Russian artillery had hit Soledar 86 times in the past day. He said the situation was “very difficult”.

The fighting is a stark reminder of how the rhythms of war have changed since the fall, when Ukraine quickly recaptured hundreds of square kilometers of territory in the north and south. Now, with winter preventing such big offensives, the fiercest fighting is taking place in places like Soledar and Bakhmut, with bloody street-to-street battles in which gains are measured in yards.

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

The British government confirmed on Tuesday that it is considering sending some of its Challenger II tanks to Ukraine – these would be the first Western main battle tanks supplied to Kyiv forces – as Ukraine continues to pressure Germany for its Leopard II tanks. Last week, France, Germany and the United States all agreed to send armored fighting vehicles, 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 an escalation. Western officials fear being drawn deeper into the conflict, determined not to get involved in a direct confrontation with Russia, and continue to refuse fighter jets and long-range missiles requested by Ukraine.

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

U.S. officials said Tuesday that Ukrainian troops will travel to Fort Sill in Oklahoma to train in the use of the Patriot, a complex system that can require nearly 100 personnel to operate. Throughout the war, a challenge was to teach Ukrainians to use unfamiliar weapon systems, and most of this training took place in Germany.

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

Despite all the intensity of the past few days, the Battle of Soledar, like that of Bakhmut, has been going on since the summer, which means that Ukrainian forces have had plenty of time to build entrenchments outside the city in in case it falls, slowing down a Russian Advance.

Military analysts have questioned Russia’s willingness to take heavy casualties in the Bakhmut region, which they say is of limited importance. Russian forces are depleted after nearly a year of heavy fighting and should instead focus on stabilizing a front line that stretches more than 600 miles, analysts said.

But Ukraine responded in kind to the offensive, throwing its own forces into the fray to prevent the region from falling into Russian hands.

The Wagner Group, which bears the brunt of fighting for Russia in and around Bakhmut, is controlled by Mr. Prigozhin, who rose to prominence as a restaurateur, became a close associate of President Vladimir V. Putin and turned this relationship into a business empire. Mr Prigozhin is believed to want a victory for Bakhmut to strengthen his own political position in his country.

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

Ukrainian officials, while acknowledging the intensity of the battle in the Bakhmut region, also suggested that losing the town to Russian forces would not be a major setback. Mr. Zelensky, in his overnight speech, underscored the broader goal of retaking all territory occupied by Russia.

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

The report was provided by Lara Jacques, Stephen’s Castle, Helen Cooper and Carly Olson.

nytimes Gt

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