Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. [File, Reuters]
Ukraine’s capital was hit with a series of explosions Saturday. Officials said critical infrastructure was hit in Kyiv but did not reveal what was damaged. Explosions were heard in the city’s Dniprovskyi district, and fragments of a missile are reported to have fallen on a nonresidential area in the Holosiivskyi district.
Also Saturday, the British Defense Ministry posted an analysis of a deployment Wednesday of at least 10 vessels of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet (BSF) from the Novorossiysk Naval Facility. The ministry posted on Twitter, “Given the type and number of vessels putting to sea at the same time, the activity is likely a fleet dispersal in response to a specific threat to Novorossiysk that Russia believes it has identified.”
“It is unlikely that the deployment signifies preparation of unusual maritime-launched cruise-missile strikes,” the post said. “It is highly unlikely that the fleet is preparing for amphibious assault operations. The BSF largely remains fixed by perceived threats from Ukraine, and continues to prioritize force protection over offensive or patrol operations.”
An elderly woman from Soledar holds her dog as she sits inside a temporary accommodation somewhere near Shakhtarsk, in Russian-controlled Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Jan. 13, 2023.
The fate of Soledar in Ukraine’s Donbas region is hanging in the balance as Russia claimed Friday that its forces had seized the salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine and Ukraine saying the fighting continues.
If Moscow’s claims bear out, it would be Russia’s first big battlefield gain after multiple military setbacks.
Serhiy Cherevatyi, spokesperson for Ukraine’s eastern military command, told Reuters that Soledar had not yet been captured.
Reuters was not immediately able to verify the situation in the town, which has become one of the bloodiest battlegrounds of the entire war, now in its 11th month.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address Friday that fighting continued in the town as well as in other parts of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region.
“The tough battle for Donetsk continues. The battle for Bakhmut and Soledar, for Kreminna, for other towns and villages in the east of our state continues,” he said.
CNN was also reporting Friday that units of the Ukrainian military insisted the battle is ongoing.
“Local battles continue in the city,” the 46th Airmobile Brigade said Friday on Telegram. “Orcs [Russians] are pressing from the outskirts to the center. Apparently, they are trying to bring down to the center those of our units who did not have time to leave the city. You will not succeed, Russians.”
Ukrainian officials said Thursday more than 500 civilians were trapped inside Soledar, including 15 children.
If Soledar’s capture is achieved, military experts say it would allow Russian forces, and the mercenary Wagner Group helming the operation, to more readily target nearby Bakhmut.
The fighting in the area reportedly also has spurred infighting between Russia’s defense establishment and the Wagner’s multimillionaire leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin. According to Reuters, he has criticized the failings of the regular Russian army, and he issued a premature claim earlier this week that Soledar had already fallen.
Prigozhin has also complained that Russia’s Defense Ministry has not given the Wagner Group credit for its fight in Soledar. On Friday evening, the ministry changed course and issued a statement acknowledging the group’s role.
"As for the direct storming of Soledar's city quarters occupied by the armed forces of Ukraine, this combat task was successfully accomplished by the courageous and selfless actions of volunteers from the Wagner assault detachments," Russia’s Defense Ministry said.
The cracks within the Russian military command have widened after a reshuffle in military leadership earlier this week, when Russia’s Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov was placed in direct charge of Russia’s forces in Ukraine. Some analysts said the move was a slapping down of Prigozhin, while also lining up Gerasimov as the fall guy if the war continues to go badly for Russia.
Within Russia, victory in Soledar could boost the power of ultra-nationalist Prigozhin, whose Wagner Group of fighters-for-hire, including convicts recruited from prison with promises of pardons, has focused on the fight in that region.
Zelenskyy remarked Friday during his nightly address on how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, now on its 324th day, reportedly is eroding the Russian military establishment.
“They are already gnawing among themselves over who should be credited with some tactical advance. It's a clear signal of failure for the enemy. And it's another incentive for all of us to put more pressure on the occupier and to inflict heavier losses on the enemy,” he said.
A phone conversation Friday between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba centered on continuing robust security and economic assistance before the February anniversary of Russia’s unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine and beyond.
The top U.S. diplomat emphasized the United States’ enduring and unflinching support for Ukraine, as underscored by recent provisions of advanced air defense equipment and armored vehicles from U.S. inventories.
Finland has joined Poland in saying it could send German-made Leopard tanks to Ukraine as part of a Western coalition apparently being assembled to supply them.
France also is hoping to deliver AMX 10-RC light-combat tanks to Ukraine in two months' time, French Armed Forces Minister Sebastien Lecornu said.
A Russian foreign ministry official said Belarus may enter the conflict in Ukraine on the side of Russia. Russia used Belarus as a springboard to invade Ukraine in February 2022, but the border area is now heavily flooded making an imminent attack from there unlikely.
Ukraine’s central security agency announced Friday that it is holding counter-sabotage exercises along a section of the Ukrainian border with Belarus.