Russian forces on the front lines of the bitter fight for control of eastern Ukraine have won their first victory in months of conflict.

After some of the most intense fighting of the war, Russia now controls the mining town of Soledar in the Donbas region, known for its extensive underground tunnels and salt mines, Moscow’s Defense Ministry said on Friday. There was no immediate confirmation from Ukrainian officials, who have rejected Russian claims of progress in recent days.

NBC News has not verified the claims by either party.

Soledar’s capture would go a long way in boosting Kremlin morale after repeated setbacks on the battlefield and rare signs of unrest at home as the war nears the one-year mark.

The fighting in the area has been notable for the prominent role played by fighters from the Wagner mercenary group, whose chief has become the public face of Russia’s war in recent months following criticism of Kremlin military leaders. .

Russia may now be one step closer to taking Bakhmut, a nearby city that has been ravaged by shelling, now freezing winter temperatures, and remains a major national symbol of Ukrainian defiance.

Wagner’s boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of President Vladimir Putin, had claimed victory in Soledar earlier this week and boasted on social media that his forces were in sole charge of the town.

But the Russian Defense Ministry stopped short of announcing the news and did not mention the role of the Wagner fighters. Moscow finally said it had captured the city in a statement early Friday.

«By the evening of January 12, the liberation of the city of Soledar was completed, which is important for the continuation of successful offensive operations in the Donetsk direction.» said Lieutenant General Igor Konashenkov according to the state news agency Tass.

Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar wrote on the Telegram messaging app on Friday that «the night in Soledar was hot, the battles continued.»

Combatants of the Wagner mercenary group in a photo reported in Soledar and released on Wednesday.
Combatants of the Wagner mercenary group in a photo reported in Soledar and released on Wednesday.Concord via Telegram

News of the advance on Soledar, which is in the eastern Donetsk region, follows the replacement of the commander of Russian forces in Ukraine on Wednesday after just 3 months in the job.

The head of Ukraine’s local administration, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said on Tuesday that only 500 people remained in Soledar, most of them elderly.

Soledar’s capture serves a military purpose for Russia as a whole, but also a personal goal to bolster Prigozhin’s reputation, analysts said.

«The salt mines are located in strategically important underground tunnels: there is a 200 km (124 mi) network of tunnels in that area, British intelligence has foundand they say those tunnels are a battlefield: whoever takes them can infiltrate behind enemy lines quite effectively,” said Samuel Ramani, an expert on politics and international relations at Oxford University.

«The next step would be to advance on Bakhmut, but they would have to encircle the city and they still have problems with that.»