U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the battle for Soledar in eastern Ukraine is a “very fluid,” “dynamic fight,” amid reports that the city had fallen to the Russians.
“At this point, we can’t corroborate that reporting,” Austin said in joint press briefing with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and their Japanese counterparts at the State Department on Wednesday.
There were claims and counterclaims from Russian and Ukrainian militaries as to who controlled the town.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group, said his forces had captured all of the mining town and killed 500 Ukrainian troops in heavy fighting.
Minutes later, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the fighting continued.
The Russians “are trying to pretend that part of our town of Soledar … is some sort of a Russian possession,” he said in a video address. “But fighting continues. The Donetsk theater of operations is holding.”
In a statement on Facebook, the Ukrainian general staff said Russian forces were suffering heavy losses. Russia has been trying to capture the salt-mining town since August because of its salt caverns and proximity to Bakhmut.
The area is one of the most active in the conflict, making it difficult for an independent assessment of the situation.
A Reuters photographer who recently reached the edge of Soledar said she could see smoke rising over the town, and the incoming artillery fire was relentless, Reuters reported. Ambulances were waiting to receive the wounded on the road from Soledar to Bakhmut.
Also Wednesday, Russia’s Defense Ministry announced that General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff, was taking over command of the forces in Ukraine. General Sergei Surovikin, who had held the job for three months, will now be Gerasimov’s deputy.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said the move is “an indicator of the increasing seriousness of the situation Russia is facing, and a clear acknowledgement that the campaign is falling short of Russia’s strategic goals.”
It added in a tweet that Russian ultra-nationalists and military bloggers critical of Gerasimov are likely to greet the news with “extreme displeasure.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a news briefing Wednesday that Ukraine’s defense in the Bakhmut area “shows once again the bravery of Ukrainian forces as they fight to defend their homeland,” and how vital it is to boost military support for Ukraine.
“Our support makes a real difference on the ground and at this key juncture of the war, we must do even more, even faster,” Stoltenberg said.
Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, said late Tuesday a U.S. decision to train Ukrainian troops on the use of the Patriot missile defense system at Fort Sill in Oklahoma confirms “Washington’s de facto involvement in the Ukrainian conflict.”
“The real goal of the administration is to inflict on Russia as much damage on the battlefield as possible, using Ukrainians as proxies,” Antonov told reporters, according to a statement posted by the Russian embassy.
Pentagon press secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder said the U.S. would look for ways to “accelerate the training timeline” so that Ukrainians could return to the battlefield as quickly as possible.
Zelenskyy made further pleas for Western military aid in his nightly address Tuesday, saying it is important to bolster Ukraine’s forces before a Russian escalation.
He also made an appearance at Tuesday night’s Golden Globes awards ceremony, saying in a separate video message to television and movie stars gathered in California, “There will be no third world war.”
Some information for this report came from Agence France-Presse and Reuters.