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Russia’s Claim to Seize a Ukrainian Town Exposes Rifts Among Forces

A Russian claim of victory on Friday in a town in eastern Ukraine exposed a growing rift in Moscow’s war effort, as the Russian military and a private mercenary group contradicted each other publicly about who should get credit for the gains.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement that its troops had taken control of the town, Soledar — which would be Russia’s largest battlefield success in months — but made no mention of the Kremlin-affiliated Wagner private military company, which has ordered waves of troops into fighting in the region.

Shortly after the Defense Ministry issued the statement on Friday, Andrei Troshev, a senior Wagner commander, accused the ministry of stealing “other people’s achievements.” Three days earlier, Wagner claimed that Soledar had fallen to its fighters, pointedly saying that the Russian army was not involved, only to have the Kremlin dispute the statement.

After months of intense combat and heavy casualties, who actually controlled Soledar remained unclear on Friday. The Ukrainian military said its troops were still holding onto parts of the town, but that Russia had deployed significant forces in the area and that the situation was dynamic.

Although taking control of the town would provide Russia with new positions for artillery facing the nearby city of Bakhmut, where fighting has raged for months, analysts say Soledar itself has little strategic value and is unlikely to significantly change the battle for eastern Ukraine.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, said on Thursday night that geo-located footage indicated that Moscow’s forces “likely control most if not all of Soledar,” but said capture of the town was “at best a Russian Pyrrhic tactical victory,” gained at a steep cost.

Most of Soledar has been reduced to shattered buildings, jagged rubble and shell craters, and most of its prewar population of about 10,000 has fled. But after months of Russian military setbacks — a chaotic collapse in the northeast in September, a retreat from a major city in the south in November, and heavy losses in the east all the while — Russian military leaders appeared to view the town as a symbolic prize worth competing for.

People from Soledar in a bus waiting to be registered and given temporary housing near Shakhtarsk, in the Russian-controlled part of the Donetsk region, on Friday.Credit…Associated Press

The public quarrel between Wagner and the Russian military highlighted the deep rifts and disorganization that have plagued Russia’s invasion of Ukraine since it began almost a year ago. Late Friday, the Russian military appeared to try to patch up the dispute by issuing a second statement, this one with a rare statement of public praise for the Wagner fighters.

In the statement, the Defense Ministry said it needed to “clarify” that a “heterogeneous” group had worked together in Soledar. The direct assault of city blocks, the ministry said, “was accomplished with the courageous and selfless actions of the Wagner PMC volunteer assault troops.”

The State of the War

  • Russia’s Military Reshuffle: Moscow has shaken up its military command in Ukraine again, demoting its top commander after just three months and replacing him with a Kremlin insider who helped orchestrate the ill-fated invasion.
  • In the East: The head of the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary force, said that his fighters had seized the eastern town of Soledar. The claim was quickly rejected by Ukraine’s military.
  • Western Escalation: A cease-fire proposal seemingly aimed at splintering Western unity has instead been met with an escalation of military involvement by Ukraine’s allies.
  • New Equipment: The Western allies’ provision to Ukraine of infantry fighting vehicles signaled their support for new offensives. Now it looks likely that tanks will be added to the list of weapons being sent.

The founder of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has for months taken a greater prominence in Russia’s war efforts, recruiting prisoners to join his troops, deploying his own fighter jets and tanks, and openly denigrating and taunting Russian generals. Analysts have said that Mr. Prigozhin, by seizing on Russian military failures in Ukraine and highlighting Wagner’s role, has sought to raise his stature with President Vladimir V. Putin.

In the battles for Soledar and Bakhmut, where Wagner troops have been engaged for months, Mr. Prigozhin has sought to portray himself as leading Russia’s only successful offensive. He has shared videos that show him with soldiers in person, purporting to be near the front, and criticized military leaders for staying far from the fighting.

On Friday, one of Mr. Prigozhin’s companies quoted him on Telegram saying that Wagner faced a struggle against “corruption, bureaucracy and officials who want to stay in their places,” calling this a “more serious threat” to his company than the United States. He did not specify the officials he was referring to.

A military jet launched decoy flares over the front line near Soledar on Wednesday.Credit…Libkos/Associated Press

In a statement on Friday night, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine reveled in the rift among the Russians and said his country’s troops were still fighting in Soledar. “They are already gnawing among themselves over who should be credited with some tactical advance,” he said, adding that the dispute was “a clear signal of failure for the enemy” and an incentive for Ukraine to put more pressure on Russia.

In a reflection of the shifting power dynamics within the Kremlin, the top commander of Russia’s war effort — a general praised by Mr. Prigozhin — was abruptly replaced on Wednesday by Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, a longstanding member of Russia’s military establishment.

Mr. Gerasimov, the chief of the military general staff, was an architect of the invasion that has exposed to the world the dysfunction within Russia’s vaunted military. Russian nationalists and war hawks have increasingly criticized his leadership of the armed forces in the wake of Russian defeats and struggles.

The general he replaced, Sergei Surovikin, was widely regarded as a competent commander: In his three months overseeing the war effort, he ordered a retreat from Kherson, a major city in Ukraine’s south, redeployed Russian troops to shore up defenses and concentrated efforts on eastern Ukraine. On Wednesday, he was named one of Mr. Gerasimov’s deputies.

The shake-up probably reflected systemic issues in the Russian military, Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, said on Thursday. He cited “logistics problems, command and control problems, sustainment problems, morale and the large failure to achieve the strategic objectives that they’ve set for themselves.”

Western officials say that Russia, Wagner and Ukraine have all suffered heavy losses in the region, especially as Russia and Wagner have sent waves of men into battle in an effort to overwhelm Ukraine’s troops.

A photo released by Russian state media showing Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian General Staff, foreground, President Vladimir V. Putin, and Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu overseeing military exercises last year.Credit…Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Russian forces in the area far outnumber the Ukrainian troops who remain, according to people familiar with the matter on the Ukrainian side in the eastern Donbas region. They said the fighting was fierce and that resupply efforts were hindered by heavy Russian tank fire.

Military analysts say that even if Soledar were to fall, it would not necessarily mean that Bakhmut — or the whole of the Donbas — was next.

The White House’s national security spokesman, John Kirby, when asked on Thursday about the status of Soledar, cautioned that it was important to “keep this in perspective.”

“We don’t know how it’s going to go, so I’m not going to predict failure or success here,” he told reporters. “But even if both Bakhmut and Soledar fall to the Russians, it’s not going to make a — it’s not going to have a strategic impact on the war itself.”

He added: “If you look at what’s been happening over the last 10 and a half months, particularly in the Donbas, towns and villages have swapped hands quite frequently.”

Smoke billowing in Soledar on Wednesday.Credit…Libkos/Associated Press

Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Cassandra Vinograd and Carly Olson contributed reporting.

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