CNN  — 

Russia said Friday its forces had captured Soledar, a salt mine town in eastern Ukraine, as Kyiv rejected the claims.

Should Russian troops indeed take the town, it would mark Moscow’s first gain in the Donbas for months – potentially offering President Vladimir Putin some welcome news after a recent string of humiliating setbacks on the battlefield.

The significance of Soledar in military terms is minimal and largely symbolic. However, its capture, if confirmed, would allow Russian forces, and especially the Wagner mercenary group, to turn their focus on nearby Bakhmut, which has been a target since the summer.

Taking Soledar would also represent a PR win for the man who runs Wagner – oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has frequently criticized the Russian Defense Ministry’s management of the “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine.

Here’s what you need to know about Soledar.

What’s happening in Soledar?

As has often been the case with battlefield gains and losses, there are conflicting reports from Russian and Ukrainian sides about the success of Russia’s advance into the town.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the capture of Soledar “became possible due to the constant destruction of the enemy by assault and army aviation, missile troops and artillery of a group of Russian forces.” 

“They continuously inflicted concentrated strikes on the positions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the city, forbidding the transfer of reserves, the supply of ammunition, as well as attempts by the enemy to retreat to other lines of defense,” a statement read.

The Russian MOD made no reference to Wagner claims that the private military company had conducted the operation exclusively themselves.  

“The complex of measures implemented by the Russian group of troops ensured the successful offensive operations of the assault detachments to liberate Soledar. Over the past three days alone, more than 700 Ukrainian servicemen and over 300 units of weapons of the Armed Forces of Ukraine have been destroyed near the city of Soledar,” the ministry added.

Alexander Shatov, the head of the Russia-backed administration in Shakhtyorsk, in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said Moscow’s forces had evacuated about 100 people from Soledar to the town. He told Russian state news agency RIA Novosti that 110 more people were expected to arrive Friday.

However, Serhii Cherevatyi, spokesman for the Eastern Group of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, told CNN that “Russian troops do not control Soledar.”

A Ukrainian solider stationed in the city of Bakhmut told CNN that Kyiv’s units are still at the “western outskirts” of Soledar.

Taras Berezovets, a captain in the Ukrainian Special Forces First Brigade, said remaining in Soledar made no military sense, because it was “completely destroyed.” He said he believed a decision to withdraw would be made in the coming days, but said it would be up to the General Staff to make any such decision. He added that morale among frontline units was high.

He said his comrades in other units understood that the mission was to hold on as long as they could and kill as many fighters of the Wagner group as possible, and that much of the fighting over the last two weeks had involved street fighting in Soledar between small units of four to eight fighters.

Berezovets said that Ukrainian forces continued to inflict heavy casualties on the Russians. He claimed that a captured Wagner fighter had told interrogators that only three out of 35 men in his platoon had survived.

He had no knowledge of any Ukrainian troops being trapped in Soledar and said units had been successfully withdrawn to the western outskirts, close to the railway station.

Ukrainian soldiers watch as smoke billows during fighting in Soledar on Wednesday.

A CNN team just outside of Soledar reported ongoing mortar and rocket fire on Friday afternoon, after Russia claimed it had captured the town.

Where is Soledar, and what’s there?

Soledar lies at the center of the Donbas region, the vast expanse of eastern Ukraine whose capture Russia has prized above all other regions since last summer. Indeed, Moscow regards it as Russian territory since claiming (illegally) that it had annexed all of the Donetsk region – including the approximately 40% that lies outside Russian control.

It is just a few miles northeast of the larger city of Bakhmut, which has become perhaps the most contested and kinetic part of the 1,300-kilometer (800 mile) front line in Ukraine and the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the war.

Soledar has therefore been a target for Russian forces since last May. With a pre-war population of about 10,000, it has little strategic value in itself, but is a waypoint in the Russians’ attritional slog westwards. Moscow has struggled for months to attack Bakhmut from the east, but were it to capture Soledar, Moscow would at least be able to approach the city from a different path.

The Russian Defense Ministry said Friday that the capture of the town is “important for the continuation of successful offensive operations in the Donetsk region.”

The ministry added that “establishing control over Soledar makes it possible to cut off the supply routes for Ukrainian troops in Bakhmut.”