Russia ordered its top general on Wednesday to take charge of its faltering invasion of Ukraine in the biggest shake-up yet of its malfunctioning military command structure after months of battlefield setbacks.
It did so as Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of Russia’s private military firm Wagner, said his forces had captured all of the eastern Ukrainian mining town of Soledar and killed about 500 Ukrainian soldiers after heavy fighting.
“I want to confirm the complete liberation and cleansing of the territory of Soledar from units of the Ukrainian army … Ukrainian units that did not want to surrender were destroyed,” he said in a statement.
“The whole city is littered with the corpses of Ukrainian soldiers,” said Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Minutes earlier, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky mocked previous Wagner claims to have seized part of Soledar, saying fighting was still going on.
“The terrorist state and its propagandists are trying to pretend that part of our town of Soledar … is some sort of a Russian possession,” he said in a video address. “But fighting continues. The Donetsk theatre of operations is holding.”
There was no immediate Ukrainian comment on Wagner’s latest assertions.
In a separate statement on Facebook, the Ukrainian military general staff said Russian forces were suffering heavy losses as they tried to take Soledar and sever Ukrainian supply lines.
Russia has struggled to cement control over the salt-mining town, which would be Russia’s most substantial gain since August after a series of retreats before Ukrainian counter-offensives in the east and south.
Wagner is among a number of semi-autonomous Russian forces whose high battlefield profile after more than 10 months of war has underlined the ineffectiveness of Russia’s core military in an invasion it had expected to finish in days.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu had appointed Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov as overall commander of forces for what Moscow calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
The move not only made Gerasimov directly accountable for the fate of the campaign but also in effect demoted General Sergei Surovikin, who is nicknamed “General Armageddon” by the Russian media for his reputed ruthlessness.
A Defence Ministry statement said the reshuffle was meant to improve contacts between different military branches and the “quality and effectiveness” of the command structure.
Mathieu Boulegue at think-tank Chatham House in London said that in shifting Gerasimov, Putin could be trying to increase “manual control” over management of the war and deflect criticism by pro-war ultra-nationalists inside and outside the Kremlin including Prigozhin.
Russian pro-war commentators were not impressed.
“The sum does not change, just by changing the places of its parts,” wrote one prominent military blogger who posts on the Telegram messaging app under the name of Rybar.
He said Surovikin, a veteran of Russian campaigns in Chechnya and Syria, was being made the fall guy for a series of recent Russian military debacles, including a Ukrainian attack on a Russian barracks in the town of Makiivka that killed at least 89 Russian soldiers, including conscripts, at New Year.
Surovikin had been named Russia’s top battlefield commander in Ukraine only last October after Ukrainian offensives that turned the tide of the war and drew attention to poor training, equipment and morale among Russian forces.
Soledar would be a stepping stone in Moscow’s thrust to capture Ukraine’s entire eastern Donbas industrial region.
Before Wagner’s latest statement, the Kremlin stopped short of claiming victory and acknowledged heavy casualties.
“Let’s not rush, let’s wait for official statements. There is a positive dynamic in progress,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Reuters was unable to independently verify the situation in Soledar. But a Reuters photographer who reached the outskirts in recent days said many residents had fled along roads out of the town in perishing cold.
She said smoke could be seen rising over the town and the incoming artillery fire was relentless, and that ambulances were waiting to receive wounded on the road from Soledar to Bakhmut.
Russia has targeted Soledar as a platform to attack the nearby city of Bakhmut, which has held out for months against a Russian onslaught and is a supply line hub in eastern Ukraine.
Earlier, Russian state news agency RIA said Wagner had taken over Soledar’s salt mines and a photograph on the militia’s Telegram channel appeared to show Prigozhin and his fighters inside a mine.
Denis Pushilin, leader of the Russian-held part of Donetsk province, said Soledar’s capture would enable the taking of more significant towns further west in what Russia has recognized as the Donetsk People’s Republic – centre of Ukrainian heavy industry and one of four provinces Moscow says it has “annexed”.
U.S. analyst Michael Kofman said victory in Soledar would come at a high price for Russia. But he added on Twitter that the battle could also damage Ukraine’s counter-attack plans and worsen the pressure on Bakhmut.
Russia sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24, saying Kyiv’s close ties with the West and ambitions to join NATO threatened its security. Kyiv and its allies accuse Moscow of an unprovoked war to seize territory in a neighbour it once dominated within the former Soviet Union.