The Daily Telegraph

It was Wagner that took Soledar, admits Kremlin

Concession undermines rare Putin victory and highlights mercenary group’s growing influence

- By James Kilner

THE Russian military was forced to concede last night that the increasing­ly powerful Wagner mercenary group had captured the Ukrainian town of Soledar on Moscow’s behalf, in a row that overshadow­ed Vladimir Putin’s first battlefiel­d breakthrou­gh in six months.

However, Ukraine has maintained that the battle is not yet over. Forces are continuing to fight Russian troops in Soledar and other cities in eastern Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, the president, said in a late-night video address yesterday.

And Serhiy Cherevatyi, spokespers­on for Ukraine’s eastern military command, told Reuters that Soledar had not been captured: “Our units are there, the town is not under Russian control.”

Russia’s ministry of defence had at first proclaimed that its “brave paratroope­rs” had “liberated” the small salt mining town in Donbas without mentioning Wagner.

But the version of events was swiftly contradict­ed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the group’s head, who said “not a single paratroope­r” was involved.

In a humiliatin­g admission and rare recognitio­n of the private force, the Russian military later published a statement saying: “This combat mission was successful­ly implemente­d by the courageous and selfless actions of the volunteers of the Wagner assault squads.”

The public row threatened to undermine the Kremlin’s first significan­t victory since declaring the Luhansk region of Donbas conquered in July.

Since then, the Russian army has suffered a rout from around Kharkiv in the northeast and has withdrawn from Kherson in the south.

It also highlights the growing power and influence of the Wagner Group, which has the Kremlin’s backing but operates separately from the army.

The Kremlin had ordered Wagner out into the mainstream earlier this year to reinforce its regular forces, allowing it to recruit openly across Russia and from its prisons, but the Wagner chain of command slowly separated and now only answers to Mr Prigozhin.

Confidence in the Russian military has fallen after the battlefiel­d defeats and the chaotic mobilisati­on of 320,000 men in September. Mr Putin has tinkered with his military commanders in Ukraine, appointing his third general to run the invasion this week.

Some analysts have said that the capture of Soledar may allow Russian forces to outflank Ukrainian soldiers in the battle for Bakhmut, but others have said that its only real value is to curry favour with Mr Putin, who was desperate for a battlefiel­d victory.

Andriy Yermak, head of the office of the president of Ukraine, has described battles around the town and Bakhmut as the “Verdun of the 21st century”.

The Battle of Verdun was the longest battle of the First World War and led to huge casualties.

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