The boss of the feared Russian Wagner mercenary group has gloated to Ukraine by posing in a salt mine in a key battleground.
Yevgeny Prigozhin stood defiantly alongside Vladimir Putin’s private paramilitary fighters in the Soledar pit as he claimed his mercenaries have single-handedly taken control of the eastern Ukraine town, which has been razed by brutal fighting.
However, the claim prompted the Russian army to issue a statement saying fighting for the town is still on-going, thus denying Prigozhin’s brazen claim.
The unusual contradiction from Moscow raises questions over whether the Russian president has lost control of the Wagner warlord and his men, amid suggestions that Kremlin officials are growing dissatisfied with Putin’s leadership.
The boss of the feared Wagner mercenary group has gloated to Ukraine by posing in a captured salt mine a the centre of a key battleground in the country (pictured)
Yevgeny Prigozhin stood defiantly alongside Putin’s private paramilitary fighters in the Soledar pit, claiming to have captured the town. This was quickly denied by Russia’s military, which said fighting was still on-going against Ukrainian forces
Kyiv said its forces are still holding out while Russia said ‘urban battles’ are still being fought in the town whose capture would represent a major victory for Moscow after a series of humiliating setbacks in recent months.
‘Assault squads are fighting in the city,’ the Russian army said in a statement. It added that its forces ‘blocked Soledar from the northern and southern areas of the city’ and that its air force was striking ‘enemy strongholds.’
Found in the Donetsk region, Soledar lies nine miles from the city of Bakhmut, which Russia has been trying to seize for months, and its capture is reported to have been made a key objective for the Kremlin.
But analysts have questioned the tactical advantage of taking the town, with Russia’s efforts to seize the city – at any cost necessary – confounding many. Thousands of Russian soldiers have been sent to their deaths in the attempt.
At the end of last year, the Washington Post reported that members of Putin’s inner circle have become disgruntled, feeling that the Russian despot is unsure what his next steps are in Ukraine as his troops fail to make any significant ground.
Should Putin ever be deposed as leader, a huge power vacuum would be left. Speculation about the growing dissatisfaction around him, as well as his ‘ailing health’, has also added to speculation about who would replace him.
Bakhmut has a network of cavernous mining tunnels below the ground which can hold troops or tanks, but it is also home to a series of salt mines.
Some analysts have suggested Prigozhin is hell-bent on taking the town in order to capture its salt mines. Whether he intends to use the mines for his own personal gain, while using his battlefield exploits as a means to demonstrate his leadership credentials to fill any potential power vacuum, remains to be seen.
Some analysts have suggested that Wagner warlord Prigozhin (right) is hell-bent on taking the town in order to capture its salt mines as a resource
Pictured: Yevgeny Prigozhin (right) pictured with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin has been dubbed Putin’s chef for providing catering services to the Kremlin
This feeling of growing dissatisfaction in Putin’s leadership will likely have been compounded this week with the appointment of Colonel-General Alexander Lapin as chief of staff of the country’s ground forces.
Lapin, previously commander of Russia’s central military district, was blasted last October by hawkish allies of Putin after Russian forces were driven out of the city of Lyman in eastern Ukraine, a key logistics hub.
Prigozhin was among those to publicly criticise Lapin at the time, agreeing with Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov when he said: ‘All these b**tards should be sent barefoot to the front with automatic guns,’ in reference to the commander.
Oligarch Prigozhin, dubbed Putin’s chef for providing catering services to the Kremlin alongside heading up the notorious private army, said: ‘This was all done by PMC Wagner with no other help.’
It comes amid a power struggle between the Wagner Group, who have been accused of a litany of war crimes across global battlefields at arm’s length from the Kremlin, and the Russian military.
He said: ‘Wagner units took control of the entire territory of Soledar. A cauldron has been formed in the centre of the city in which urban fighting is going on.
‘The number of prisoners will be announced tomorrow.’
Soledar, in the industrial Donbas region, lies just nine miles from Bakhmut, where troops from both sides have been taking heavy losses in some of the most intense trench warfare since Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year
In Soledar, once a bustling salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine, the ground is now scarred from a relentless stream of missiles and gunfire as Russian forces aim to take control of the nearby and key city of Bakhmut. Pictured: A Ukrainian tank fires at Russian soldiers sheltered near a building in the destroyed town of Soledar
The British Defence Ministry earlier said Russian troops and Wagner fighters had probably taken control of most of Soledar after four days of advances.
But Prigozhin’s comment that fighting continued in Soledar’s centre suggested Russian control was incomplete, despite his statement that all of the town was in Wagner’s grasp.
The Russian state RIA news agency later issued a report saying that Wagner Group took over Soledar’s salt mines following ‘fierce fighting’.
The salt mines are located in the suburbs of the town. Washington has said Prigozhin may want personal control of the area’s mines.
In his address, Volodymyr Zelensky said there was a ‘difficult situation’ in the Donetsk region and praised the ‘bravery’ of Ukrainian soldiers defending Soledar.
Earlier this week he said Soledar had been flattened by fighting: ‘Everything is completely destroyed.’
He said no walls were left standing and the dead bodies of the invading Russian soldiers decaying on the streets.
Smoke rises from strikes on the frontline city of Soledar, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, as seen from Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine, on January 5
Everything in the town is ‘completely destroyed’, with no walls left standing and the dead bodies of the invading Russian soldiers decaying on the streets, Zelensky said
Zelensky repeated his call for more Western weapons, saying Russia was gathering its forces to intensify its campaign. He did not provide details.
But Ukraine’s Defence Ministry tweeted late on Tuesday, ‘Even after suffering colossal losses, Russia is still maniacally trying to seize Soledar – home to the largest salt mine in Europe.’
Ukraine said earlier its forces were still holding onto positions in Soledar, withstanding assaults by wave after wave of Russian forces seeking their first battlefield victory for months.
Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar on Tuesday evening said that fighting for the town was still raging.
‘The enemy disregards the heavy losses of its personnel and continues to storm actively,’ she said. ‘The approaches to our positions are simply strewn with the bodies of dead enemy fighters. Our fighters are bravely holding the defence.’
Firefighters work to put out a blaze at a fireworks storage facility after it was struck by a Russian missile in Kharkiv yesterday
An apartment block destroyed by a Russian missile strike is seen, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in the frontline town of Bakhmut
Earlier, some prominent Russian military bloggers urged caution about the situation in Soledar and said that intense combat in the town’s centre and its outskirts continued during the night.
Ukraine’s military said its forces had repelled enemy attacks in the areas of 13 settlements in Luhansk, Kharkiv and Donetsk regions, including Bakhmut.
Seizing Soledar would be Russia’s most substantial gain since August, after a series of humiliating retreats throughout much of the second half of 2022. Russian forces have been fighting for months to capture Bakhmut.
But any victory would come at a massive cost, with troops from both sides having taken heavy losses in some of the most intense combat since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly 11 months ago.
The Kyiv government has released pictures in recent days showing what it says are scores of Russian soldiers strewn dead in muddy fields.
Moscow says capturing Bakhmut would be a major step toward taking full control of the Donetsk region, one of four provinces it claimed to have annexed three months ago.
Local residents remove debris and carry belongings out of a shop destroyed in recent shelling in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict in Donetsk
Near Bakhmut, a team of Ukrainian soldiers fired volleys of shells from a heavy anti-aircraft gun at what they said were Russian ground positions, across a barren snowy field.
‘We’re frying orcs,’ said one soldier with the nom de guerre ‘Pilot’, using a common Ukrainian slur for Russian troops.
His crew receives coordinates of Russian bases from spotters or drones. They periodically shell Russian bases, and unleash storms of heavy fire when enemy troops advance: ‘If they creep in very actively, then we kill them in great numbers.
Hours after German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock visited the northeastern city of Kharkiv, Russian strikes late on Tuesday hit a fireworks factory, the regional governor said, adding that no one was hurt.
The potential fall of Soledar came as Russian strikes hit the major city of Kharkiv further north, just hours after a surprise visit by Germany’s foreign minister Annalena Baerbock.
Kharkiv has faced heavy bombardment during the war, but the frontline has moved east since a Ukrainian counter-offensive last year retook territory from Russian forces.