Ukraine said Friday it was resisting a “high intensity” Russian offensive in Soledar, a nearly completely destroyed town in the eastern Donetsk region that is now the epicentre of the war.
That assessment came hours ahead of a United Nations Security Council meeting to discuss the situation in Ukraine.
“It was hot overnight in Soledar. Hostilities continued. The enemy relocated almost all of its main forces to the Donetsk front and is maintaining a high intensity offensive,” Deputy Defence Minister Ganna Malyar said.
“This is a difficult phase of the war,” she added.
The Kremlin has made capturing industrial Donetsk region its primary objective after nearly one year of fighting that has seen it abandon more ambitious goals like seizing the capital Kyiv and ousting Ukraine’s government.
The Russian mercenary group Wagner claims to have spearheaded the offensive for Soledar and already announced earlier this week that its forces were controlling it.
But both the Kremlin and the Russian defence ministry have urged caution and said fighting in Soledar was still ongoing.
President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed Thursday that Ukrainian forces defending Soledar and neighbouring Bakhmut would be armed with everything they need in some of the bloodiest battles of the war.
A ‘small-scale victory’
Observers are divided over the strategic significance of Soledar, a salt mining town with a pre-war population of around 10,000 people.
It could act as a bridgehead for Russia to develop its offensive for Bakhmut, a larger town nearby that Russian forces have been attacking for months.
But analysts have also said that Moscow is desperate to sell any victory after several months of battlefield setbacks.
Both sides have conceded heavy losses in the fight.
The US-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a military observation group, said in an analytical note that Russian forces had likely captured Soledar on Wednesday.
“But this small-scale victory is unlikely to presage an imminent encirclement of Bakhmut,” it cautioned.
ISW said its assessment of Russia‘s “likely” control over Soledar was based on geolocated footage earlier this week, adding that Moscow’s troops “likely pushed Ukrainian forces out of the western outskirts of the settlement.”
The battle for Soledar comes after a major military reshuffle in Moscow, with Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov now in charge of its operations in Ukraine.
A Moscow-based defence analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described the move to AFP as “unprecedented” and said it indicated “very serious problems” on the battlefield.
The deputy head of the Ukrainian presidential office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, said Russian forces had killed four civilians in fighting the previous day and injured eight more.
Two of those killed followed attacks in Donetsk, he said.