Vladimir Putin has authorised another shake-up in the military leadership leading the invasion of Ukraine, while Kyiv mocked claims that it had lost the town of Soledar which is at the centre of a furious Russian assault.
Russia’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff, has been appointed as overall commander of forces in Ukraine, one of a number of changes in recent months as Mr Putin seeks a success story to sell at home.
It is clear that pressure is building on the Kremlin, with the move in effect demoting Gen Sergei Surovikin, who had been named Russia’s top battlefield commander in Ukraine only last October after a spate of offensives by Kyiv’s troops that turned the tide of the war. Gen Surovikin had earned the nickname “General Armageddon” from the Russian media for his reputed ruthlessness.
A Defence Ministry statement said the reshuffle was meant to improve contacts between different military branches and the “quality and effectiveness” of the command structure.
Moscow seeks control of Soledar to strenghten its position around the nearby besieged city of Bakhmut and provide a stepping stone to other cities in the eastern Donbas region. On Wednesday evening, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky mocked claims by the Russian mercenary Wagner group that it had taken control of the town – the scene of some of the most intense fighting since Moscow’s invasion began.
The head of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin – an ally of Mr Putin – had claimed that his forces had control of the town, an important stepping stone for Moscow’s aims to take over the entire eastern Donbas region. He doubled down on those boasts on Wednesday evening, claiming the “complete liberation” of Soledar and the killing of 500 Ukrainian soldiers.
Talking about Moscow and Wagner, Mr Zelensky said: “The terrorist state and its propagandists are trying to pretend that part of our town of Soledar … is some sort of a Russian possession. But fighting continues.”
The Russian Defence Ministry had earlier sought to play down Mr Prigozhin’s claims of complete victory, saying that airborne units had cut off Soledar from the north and south and hit Ukrainian military targets in the area. Mr Putin told Kremlin officials on Wednesday that Russia faced with a difficult situation in parts of the Ukrainian regions it claims to have annexed, including Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia. It was not the first time in recent weeks Mr Putin made an uncomfortable admission of the state of Russia’s invasion of its neighbour amid growing domestic anger over battlefield losses. He did not mention Soledar.
As for the fighting around the town, Serhiy Cherevatyi, spokesperson for Ukraine’s eastern military command, said Kyiv’s troops had not allowed Russia to break through the frontlines and compared the intensity of the fighting to the Second World War.
“There is a complicated situation there,” he said, adding that the military command was “working now on how to stabilise the situation with the maximum impact for the enemy and minimum losses for Ukraine.”
“The intensity of battles near Bakhmut can be compared with World War Two,” Mr Cherevatyi said. He said Ukraine had an advantage due to the more modern weapons it had been provided by its allies, while Russian forces still had a lot of Soviet-era weapons and were using Soviet-era armoured vehicles with some modernised elements.
Ukrainian deputy defence minister Hanna Maliar said on Tuesday evening the Russians were taking heavy losses. The Independent was not able to confirm reports from the ground in Soledar on either side and military observers working from satellite imagery said the dynamic nature of urban combat made the situation unclear.
Despite the huge costs – economic and human – accrued in more than 10 months of war, Mr Putin told his officials he had the means to reinforce depleted military units in Ukraine and embark on socio-economic reforms to improve life across Russia, including in the territories it has unilaterally claimed in Ukraine. “We certainly have all the resources for this,” he told officials, according to the state-owned Tass news agency.
Away from the frontline, Ukrainian president Mr Zelensky urged Nato to approve membership for his country at a summit in Lithuania in July.
Kyiv requested fast-track Nato membership in September. Nato has maintained since 2008 that it will one day welcome Ukraine but the 30 current member states are unlikely to agree accession during the Russian invasion out of fear of Moscow’s reaction.
Speaking from Lviv in western Ukraine at a meeting with his counterparts from Nato members Poland and Lithuania, Mr Zelensky said: “We need steps forward ... we are counting on something more than just open doors.”
Polish president Andrzej Duda said Poland had decided to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine, as he tried to rally allies to offer similar vehicles.
UK prime minister Rishi Sunak has asked defence secretary Ben Wallace to “work with partners” in the coming weeks to go “further and faster with our support for Ukraine including the provision of tanks”, Downing Street said on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces staged military exercises near the Belarusian border amid fears that Russia will launch another offensive from its ally’s territory, as it did at the start of the invasion in February.
Mr Zelensky downplayed warnings of Russian preparations in Belarus but said “nevertheless we must be ready both at the border and in the regions”.
Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report