January 13, 2023

Russian forces capture Soledar but fail to credit role of Wagner mercenaries

Institute for the Study of War

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on January 13 that Russian forces seized Soledar, Donetsk Oblast, on the evening of January 12. The Russian MoD claimed that Russian forces can now form a “cauldron” around Bakhmut and threaten Ukrainian supply lines running southwest of Soledar that support Ukrainian troops in the city.[1] The Russian MoD notably praised assault and army aviation, missile and artillery troops, and Russian airborne forces for seizing Soledar, without acknowledging Wagner Group’s participation in the fighting for the city. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov maintained that the situation around Soledar is difficult and noted that it is unclear if Russian forces control the settlement at this time. At the same time, other Ukrainian military officials reported that Ukrainian forces continued to fight in Soledar during the night of January 12-13.[2] Ukrainian forces may still occupy some positions on the northwestern borders of Soledar but are unlikely to control significant territory within the settlement itself. ISW assessed on January 12 that Russian forces had likely captured Soledar on January 11, but such a victory is unlikely to presage an imminent Russian encirclement of Bakhmut.[3]

The announcement sparked a significant backlash within the Russian information space due to the Russian MoD’s failure to acknowledge the Wagner Group’s participation in the capture of Soledar. The Russian MoD issued a follow-up announcement six hours later recognizing Wagner volunteers and assault detachments as participants in the Battle for Soledar and noting that the Russian MoD received numerous inquiries regarding its original commemoration of select Russian forces.[4] The Russian MoD attempted to justify their snub of Wagner by claiming that a Russian “heterogeneous grouping of troops” executed a “joint plan” in the Soledar direction and attributed the assault against residential areas to Wagner forces. Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin vaguely responded to the Russian MoD’s omission of Wagner, stating that he cannot comment on the situation and noting that journalists’ questions about the matter expose their concern over commemorating Wagner’s “heroic capture of Soledar.”[5]

Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin staged conditions for such backlash by personally visiting Soledar days prior to its capture and taking his cadre of Wagner-affiliated milbloggers to commemorate Wagner forces’ daily advances on Russian social media platforms.[6] Prigozhin likely attempted to preempt the announcement on January 12 by accusing unnamed bureaucrats and government officials of “constantly trying to steal victory from [the] Wagner private military company” and belittling its merits.[7] Milbloggers independent or affiliated with Wagner subsequently generated a series of criticisms calling out the Russian MoD for its misrepresentation of the claimed capture of Soledar.[8]

The Russian MoD’s announcement highlighted the existing conflict between the Wagner Group and the Russian MoD – a dynamic that ISW has previously observed and assessed. Several prominent milbloggers – including those affiliated with the Kremlin – stated that there is an ongoing conflict between the Russian MoD and Prigozhin behind closed doors and within the information space.[9] Some noted that Prigozhin has overpowered the Russian MoD‘s deliberately vague rhetoric, forcing the Russian MoD, and by extension the Kremlin, to end its long-standing policy of refraining from recognizing Wagner and its war efforts.[10] A Kremlin-affiliate milblogger, in turn, claimed that Prigozhin and the Russian MoD are both equally attempting to undermine each other and accused Prigozhin of refusing to recognize the  Russian Armed Forces as a participating force on the battlefield.

Key Takeaways:

  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on January 13 that Russian forces seized Soledar on the evening of January 12.
  • The MoD’s initial announcement (which did not mention the Wagner Group) sparked a significant backlash within the Russian information space, forcing the MoD to issue a second announcement crediting Wagner.
  • Prigozhin likely seeks to use the victory in Soledar as a bargaining tool to elevate his authority in Russia.
  • Putin may be taking measures to cultivate a cadre of milbloggers loyal to Putin and the Russian MoD to undermine Prigozhin’s effort to elevate himself.
  • High-ranking Ukrainian officials continue to forecast an intensification of Ukrainian and Russian operations in the spring of 2023 and that a Russian offensive from Belarus remains unlikely.
  • Russian officials’ responses to Russians who have fled abroad risks dividing the Kremlin and the ultra-nationalist pro-war community even further.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly ordered Russian occupation officials to deport Ukrainian children to Russia under medical relocation schemes.
  • Russian forces conducted limited counterattacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line while Ukrainian forces reportedly continued counteroffensive operations near Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations around Soledar, Bakhmut, and Avdiivka.
  • Ukrainian Intelligence reported that Russian forces seek to raise personnel numbers to two million by an unspecified date.
  • Ukrainian partisan attacks continue to divert Russian resources away from the frontline to rear areas in occupied territories.
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