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Smoke billows during fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces in Soledar, Donetsk region, Ukraine on Jan. 11, 2023.Libkos/The Associated Press

Russia has reportedly captured the strategic town of Soledar in eastern Ukraine, a victory that would mark the first significant battlefield gain for the invading forces after months of humiliating defeats.

In a video posted to social media on Tuesday, two balaclava-wearing Russian fighters – who identified themselves as members of the notorious Wagner private military company – said they were standing in the centre of Soledar. “PMC Wagner is carrying out a cleansing operation in the city,” said one of the mercenaries, speaking in front of what appeared to be the local administration building. “We have completed our task with a grade of A.” As he spoke, several bursts of gunfire sounded somewhere off-screen.

Earlier on Tuesday, the British Ministry of Defence wrote in its daily update that “Russian and Wagner forces have made tactical advances into the small Donbas town of Soledar and are likely in control of most of the settlement.” Ukraine, however, said that it was still fighting for the town. “Heavy fighting to hold onto Soledar continues. The enemy disregards the heavy losses of its personnel and continues to storm actively,” deputy defence minister Hanna Maliar said in a statement.

Taking Soledar – a salt-mining outpost that was home to just over 10,000 people before the war – would move Russia closer to encircling the city of Bakhmut, a key transportation juncture in the Donbas region that has been under heavy Russian assault since August. Over the intervening months, Russia has been driven from the entirety of the eastern Kharkiv region, which abuts Donbas, and was forced to withdraw from the southern city of Kherson, the only provincial capital captured by Russian forces in more than 320 days of war.

If Russia has indeed captured Soledar, the victory will have come at an enormous cost. Ukrainian officials describe the city as utterly destroyed, with the battlefield covered in corpses. “The approaches to our positions are simply strewn with the bodies of dead enemy fighters,” Ms. Maliar said. “Our fighters are bravely holding the defence.”

In a video address on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said there was “almost no life” and “no whole walls left” in Soledar. “This is what madness looks like,” he added.

In his Tuesday night video, Mr. Zelensky praised the defenders of Soledar without commenting on the battlefield situation. “Today I’d like to pay special tribute to the warriors of the 46th separate airmobile brigade for their bravery and steadfastness in defending Soledar. Thank you, warriors!”

A Canadian sniper who has been involved in the defence of nearby Bakhmut for the past three months told The Globe and Mail that Russian conscripts were being sent forward in waves, sometimes stepping over the bodies of their dead comrades as they advanced. “They’ve gained a few hundred metres of dirt and they’ve taken over completely destroyed positions and lost hundreds of guys doing so. It’s a Pyrrhic victory,” the Alberta-born sniper said.

The Globe is not naming the sniper since they were not authorized to publicly discuss the battlefield situation. They compared Russia’s tactics with those used by armies during the First World War and said that both Soledar and Bakhmut were almost completely empty of civilians.

The fact that it was the Wagner group that claimed the capture of Soledar – rather than the regular Russian army – may deepen emerging divisions within the Russian security establishment. Wagner, which gained notoriety for its lawless interventions to aid Moscow’s allies in Syria, Libya, Mali and the Central African Republic – all war zones where the mercenary group is accused of multiple war crimes – is owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a powerful businessman and long-time member of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.

Mr. Prigozhin has become an increasingly loud critic of Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov over the Russian military’s failures in Ukraine. Mr. Prigozhin has allied himself with Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov in calling for the use of more ruthless tactics to conquer Ukraine.

“Prigozhin emphasized on Jan. 9 that ‘exclusively’ Wagner Group units are taking ground in Soledar, and noted that Wagner fighters are currently engaged in ‘fierce battles for the city administration building,’” the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S.-based military research group, wrote on its social-media accounts. The ISW predicted Mr. Prigozhin “will continue to use both confirmed and fabricated Wagner Group success in Soledar and Bakhmut to promote the Wagner Group as the only Russian force in Ukraine capable of securing tangible gains.”

Mr. Prigozhin has spoken about the strategic importance of Soledar’s 200-kilometre-long network of mining tunnels, which he said would allow troops and tanks to move about below ground and potentially behind enemy lines.

However, the British Defence Ministry said a Russian victory in Soledar would not necessarily be followed by the fall of nearby Bakhmut. “Despite the increased pressure on Bakhmut, Russia is unlikely to envelop the town imminently because Ukrainian forces maintain stable defensive lines in depth and control over supply routes,” the ministry wrote.

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