Ukraine’s military has denied that Russian forces have encircled and captured Soledar after claims by the head of the Wagner mercenary group that the eastern city had fallen.
The claims about the status of the fighting on the eastern Donbas front were made by Yevgeny Prigozhin as Poland announced that it planned to transfer 10 German-made Leopard 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine, in a move with wide significance.
Speaking on a visit to Lviv on Wednesday, the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, said: “A company of Leopard tanks will be handed over as part of coalition building. We want it to be an international coalition.”
The transfer would require permission from Germany, which Kyiv has been pressing separately to supply Leopard 2s, perhaps suggesting a softening of Germany’s stance on the transfer of main battle tanks after recent contacts between Warsaw and Berlin.
However, a German government spokesperson said it was not aware of any requests from allies to send the tanks to Ukraine.
Commenting on the fighting in Soledar, Serhiy Cherevatyi, the spokesperson for the eastern group of the Ukrainian armed forces, said: “Russians say that it is under their control; it is not true.”
The Russian capture of Soledar and the city’s saltmines would have symbolic, military and commercial value for Moscow. But the situation in and around Soledar appeared fluid and neither claim could be independently verified.
Prigozhin had released a photo showing him with a group of his fighters and a tank, which he said was taken in one of the tunnels of a saltmine in the south-west of Soledar.
He also said that only units of his paramilitary company – many of them convicts who had been offered a pardon if they fought for him – had been involved in fighting for the city.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, mocked Russian claims to have taken over parts of the city, and maintained that fighting was ongoing.
“The terrorist state and its propagandists are trying to pretend that some part of our city of Soledar … is allegedly some kind of Russia’s achievement,” he said in his Wednesday evening address.
“They will present – and are already presenting – this to their society in such a way as to support mobilisation and to give hope to those who support aggression.
“But the fighting continues. The Donetsk direction is holding out.”
Footage posted from Soledar by a Ukrainian soldier from a drone unit – identified by the call sign Maygar at 10am on Wednesday – suggested heavy clashes were continuing but Ukrainian forces were still holding positions.
“This is the sound of Soledar,” he said to the background noise of constant artillery strikes. “Local fights are happening from time to time and artillery is working on both sides.”
Accounts from Ukrainian soldiers on that sector of the front suggested Russia had moved Wagner fighters from Bakhmut to focus solely on the battle for Soledar.
Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, Hanna Maliar, said “hard battles are going on to keep Soledar”.
She added: “The enemy does not pay attention to the large losses of its personnel and continues to actively storm. The approaches to our positions are simply littered with the bodies of dead enemy fighters.”
However, the Ukrainian military’s morning summary made only one mention of Soledar, listing it as one of several areas being shelled in the Donetsk region.
A Ukrainian soldier who has been posting video updates from the Bakhmut area described the fighting in Soledar as fierce, with contested buildings changing hands multiple times and soldiers suffering frostbite.
Russian forces have recently focused their efforts on the capture of Soledar as part of their ambition to take the nearby strategic city of Bakhmut and Ukraine’s larger eastern Donbas region, leading to fierce battles in sub-zero temperatures over the past five days.
Prigozhin claimed late on Tuesday to have taken the entire city, encircling Ukrainian forces in a “cauldron” in the centre.
“Wagner units took control of the entire territory of Soledar. A cauldron has been formed in the centre in which urban fighting is going on. The number of prisoners will be announced tomorrow,” he said, giving no further details.
While western military analysts have geolocated Wagner units in the centre, where there has been heavy fighting for the main administrative building, Russian claims to have taken the south-west of the area – where Ukraine had recently been mounting a defence close to the saltmines – appeared more questionable.
The British Ministry of Defence said earlier that Russian troops and Wagner fighters had probably taken control of most of Soledar after four days of advances.
But Prigozhin’s comment suggested Russian control was incomplete.
The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and the military command did not mention control of Soledar on Tuesday evening. He repeated his call for more western weapons, saying Russia was gathering forces to intensify its campaign, but did not provide details.
Ukraine’s defence ministry tweeted late on Tuesday: “Even after suffering colossal losses, Russia is still maniacally trying to seize Soledar – home to the largest saltmine in Europe.”
Ukraine said earlier that its forces were still holding on to positions in Soledar, withstanding assaults by wave after wave of Russian forces seeking their first battlefield victory for months.
Some prominent Russian military bloggers have urged caution about the situation in Soledar and said intense combat in the centre and outskirts continued during the night.
The Institute for the Study of War was also cautious over the Russian claims, noting that the fall of the city might prove to be of limited value in the fight for Bakhmut.
“Even taking the most generous Russian claims at face value, the capture of Soledar would not portend an immediate encirclement of Bakhmut. Control of Soledar will not necessarily allow Russian forces to exert control over critical Ukrainian ground lines of communication into Bakhmut,” the US thinktank said.
Seizing Soledar would, however, be Russia’s most substantial gain since August, after a series of humiliating retreats in the second half of 2022. Russian forces have been fighting for months to capture Bakhmut.
But any victory would come at a massive cost, with troops from both sides having taken heavy losses in some of the most intense combat since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly 11 months ago.
The Kyiv government has released photos in recent days purporting to show scores of dead Russian soldiers in muddy fields.
The issue of supplying tanks to Ukraine has become the centre of a frenzied round of recent diplomacy, as a number of countries have put pressure on the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, to allow the supply of Leopard 2s.
Reuters contributed to this report