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A Ukrainian Army Grad multiple rocket launcher fires missiles at Russian positions on the front line near Soledar in the Donetsk region.

A Ukrainian Army Grad multiple rocket launcher fires missiles at Russian positions on the front line near Soledar in the Donetsk region.

Ukraine has rejected claims by Russia of a rare battleground success after months of setbacks in the eastern Ukrainian town of Soledar, saying intense fighting continues for control of the town.

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Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement on January 13 that it had captured the strategically important salt-mining town overnight. There have been several conflicting reports over who controls the town in recent days, and the Russian claim could not be independently verified.

“The tough battle for the Donetsk region continues. The battle for Bakhmut and Soledar, for Kreminna, for other towns and villages in the east of our country continues,” President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address on January 13.

“Although the enemy has concentrated its greatest forces in this direction, our soldiers — the Armed Forces of Ukraine, all defense and security forces — are protecting the state,” he said.

Ukraine and Washington have tamped down talk about the importance of Soledar, saying the heavy cost in personnel incurred by Russia was not worth an area now devastated by weeks of fighting and likely not significant enough to swing the war markedly in Moscow’s favor.

“No, this is not true. Severe fighting is still going on in the town,” Serhiy Cherevatiy, a spokesman for the eastern group of the Ukrainian armed forces, said on January 13 in comments to the media outlet RBC-Ukraine, just hours after the Russian ministry’s claim.

“Ukraine’s armed forces have the situation under control in difficult conditions,” he added.

Ukraine said earlier on January 13 that it was facing a “high intensity” Russian offensive in Soledar. “The night in Soledar was hot. Fighting continued. The enemy relocated almost all of its main forces towards Donetsk and is maintaining a high intensity offensive,” Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said.

“This is a difficult stage of the war, but we will win this war. There is no doubt,” she added.

The Russian Defense Ministry said its statement that hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers were killed over the past three days of heavy fighting and bombardments. Ukrainian officials have said more than 500 civilians are trapped inside the town, including 15 children. Russian did not talk about any possible civilian casualties.

Russia has been throwing major resources into the battle for Soledar as it launches an assault on the city of Bakhmut, which is located about 10 kilometers to the southwest. Soledar would provide Russia with a secure and dominant artillery position within range of the city.

Establishing full control over Soledar makes it possible to cut off the supply routes of Ukrainian troops in the southwestern city of Artemovsk, and then to block and take into the ‘cauldron’ the units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine remaining in it,” Russia’s Defense Ministry said.

The ministry’s claim comes several days after the Kremlin-connected businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who heads the ostensibly private Russian mercenary group Vagner, said his forces, which have been operating in coordination with Russian troops, had captured the city.

The Kremlin, however, had backed away from Prigozhin’s statements, saying that while there had been a “positive dynamic in advances,” people should wait for “official information” on the situation.

Prigozhin, meanwhile, took exception to the ministry taking credit for a victory he feels his troops — consisting of trained mercenaries and men recruited from prisons with a promise of pardons for their efforts — made possible. “I read with surprise the statement from the Ministry of Defense…Soledar was taken solely by the efforts of the fighters of the Wagner PMC and there is no need to offend the fighters by downplaying their contribution,” he said.

“You are demotivating them. It is necessary to fight instead of comparing each others d**ks and stealing others’ achievements.”

Zelenskiy mocked Prigozhin’s statement, saying that Russians “are bickering among themselves over who should be credited with some tactical advance.” He called this a sign of failure and said it should serve as an “incentive” to put more pressure on Russian forces and “inflict greater losses on the enemy.” While Soledar is seen as strategically important, U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said a Russian victory there, or even in nearby Bakhmut, may not end up having a major impact on the trajectory of Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine, which is now in its 11th month. “Even if both Bakhmut and Soledar fall to the Russians, it’s not going to have a strategic impact on the war itself,” Kirby told reporters at the White House on January 12, “and it certainly isn’t going to stop the Ukrainians or slow them down.”

Meanwhile, a Russian Foreign Ministry official said on January 13 that Belarus could enter the conflict if Kyiv decides to “invade” it or Russia.

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“From a legal point of view, the use of military force by the Kyiv regime or the invasion of the territory of Belarus or Russia by the armed forces of Ukraine are sufficient grounds for a collective response,” Foreign Ministry official Aleksei Polishchuk told the official Russian state TASS news agency.

He added, however, that it was up to the leaders of the two countries to make such a decision. Belarusian soldiers have not participated in the invasion, but Minsk has allowed Russia to use its territory to stage operations in the conflict with Ukraine.

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Earlier this week, Zelenskiy said speculation about the potential for a renewed Russian offensive via neighboring Belarus showed that Ukrainian defense forces “must be ready both at the border and in the regions.”

“We understand that, apart from powerful statements, we do not see anything powerful there, but nevertheless we must be ready both at the border and in the regions,” he said on January 11.

Belarus lies directly north of Ukraine. The two countries share a border running about 1,100 kilometers.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters
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