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Soledar: Ukraine battle hints at rift in pro-Russian forces

Russia’s defence ministry says its forces are taking part in the battle for Soledar, a town north of Bakhmut in east Ukraine which has been the focus of recent fighting. 

It comes after the head of Russia’s notoriously brutal Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, claimed his fighters were in full control there and boasted that only his troops took part.

Mr Prigozhin will most likely use any victory to bolster the reputation of Wagner as an effective fighting force in the eyes of President Putin.

But the Russian defence ministry appeared to contradict the controversial oligarch’s claims. 

Spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in the military’s daily update that: “Soledar has been blockaded from the north and the south by units of the Russian Airborne Forces. 

“The Russian Air Force is carrying out strikes on enemy strongholds. Assault troops are taking part in battles inside the town.” There was no mention of Wagner forces.

Ukraine’s defence ministry also said on Wednesday that heavy fighting continues, and Wagner forces have had no success in breaking through its defences. 

If Soledar falls, it will be a boost to Mr Prigozhin. In a statement released on Tuesday night, he boasted that “no other units took part in the storming of Soledar apart from Wagner”. Ukrainian and US officials have said that Wagner units make up a large part of forces fighting in the area.

Analysts have long spoken of tensions between the military and Wagner, and Mr Prigozhin has publicly criticised generals for allegedly being out of touch with the realities of the war in Ukraine. 

While it is difficult to know for sure exactly whether infighting is going on in the corridors of power, there are some clues.

Yesterday, news agency Tass reported that Colonel-General Alexander Lapin was appointed as Chief of Staff of the Ground Forces. Russian media quoted sources who claimed that the announcement of Gen Lapin’s position – he was one of those slammed by Mr Prigozhin last year – was made as a warning to the oligarch: don’t mess with the military.

But many here have been quick to praise Mr Prigozhin and Wagner for their apparent progress in Soledar. Influential media boss Margarita Simonyan gushed about how “polite” he is, signing off with a thanks to Wagner fighters, who she called “my little darlings!”

Likewise, pro-Kremlin military bloggers on Telegram lavished praise on the mercenary group. One blogger thanked them for “the emotions you’ve given us tonight”. 

Another said “When Soledar and [Bakhmut] are liberated, it will be a new chapter in Russian military history. The first time that a private military company has shown such results in a highly intensive military conflict”.

The strategic significance of Soledar is disputed by military analysts. But if Russian forces do succeed in establishing full control over the town, it will certainly be a symbolic victory for the Kremlin. That is because Moscow’s troops have failed to take a single significant town from Ukrainian forces since the summer of 2022.

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