Ukraine and Russia are locked in an information war as well as a deadly struggle on the ground in Soledar, a salt mining town in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, at the end of the 46th week of the war.
The Wagner Group’s mercenaries have been fighting to take Soledar for weeks in an apparent effort to encircle Bakhmut, 10km (four miles) to the south, which has been the focus of Russian offensive operations since September.
Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin announced his forces had succeeded – even as he asserted the battle was continuing.
Prigozhin published a photograph of himself allegedly taken in the salt mines of Soledar, standing next to Wagner fighters.
Hours later, Serhiy Cherevaty, spokesman of Ukraine’s eastern forces, denied Soledar had fallen and called Prigozhin’s picture propaganda.
A similar debacle took place the previous day, when military reporters posted geolocated footage of Russian soldiers in the centre of Soledar, claiming the city had fallen. The UK’s defence intelligence confirmed that Russian forces had captured most of the town.
But Prigozhin himself denied those reports. “On the western outskirts of Soledar, there are heavy bloody battles. The Armed Forces of Ukraine honourably defend the territory of Soledar,” he wrote on his Telegram channel.
The battle for Soledar intensified on the night of January 5, when Wagner forces were first reported to have broken through Ukrainian defences. By December 9, Russia’s Rybar news service said Russian forces had encircled Soledar from the northeast, taking the villages of Podgorodny, Bakhmutsky, Krasnaya Gora, and Paraskovievka.
Cherevaty spoke of “very brutal battles, bloody”.
Soledar’s strategic value was low, analysts have said. “Russian forces are still far from being within striking distance of an operational encirclement of Bakhmut,” wrote the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), as they would have to reach two key highways kilometres behind Ukrainian lines.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak said a victory in Soledar would “not make any sense” strategically for Russia.
While attention was focused on Soledar, whose fall would be the first Russian capture of a town since Lysychansk last July, Ukrainian troops seized territory further north in Luhansk.
Ukrainian forces captured Pidkuichansk, just eight kilometres (three miles) northwest of Svatove, and geolocated battles showed they moved within 17km (six miles) of nearby Kreminna, confirming they were gaining ground.
The Ukrainian threat to these towns was a problem for Moscow’s planners, British military intelligence reported, because Russia had also been strengthening its defences in the southern region of Zaporizhia, fearing a Ukrainian counteroffensive towards Melitopol.
Ukraine’s movement on two fronts led to its successes in Kharkiv, in the north, and Kherson, in the south, last year.
Ukraine has been crying out for more heavy armour, longer-range weapons, and air defence systems to end the war.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has judged that political support among allies would not last another winter.
His military intelligence chief, Kyrylo Budanov, said Ukraine would mount a major counteroffensive in the coming months when winter ended and expected fighting to be “hottest” in March.