The founder and head of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, posted a video Saturday claiming he visited Soledar after it was taken over by his mercenaries "in two weeks."
Kyiv has disputed Wagner's claim that it now controls the small town, which holds significant symbolic value but is not considered strategically pivotal. The town has also caused infighting between Prigozhin's private forces and Russia's Defense Ministry over who deserves credit for the assault.
In the video, the Wagner mercenary leader said he came to town to award medals to his fighters — who he says were almost exclusively responsible for capturing Soledar.
The video shows Prigozhin standing with a man who he calls “a commander who helped to take over Soledar.”
“Soledar was taken over in two weeks,” Prigozhin said. “Soledar was squeezed by our claws and then was divided into parts. You can’t eat an elephant all at once, like they say. You have to cut it in parts.”
According to Prigozhin, Ukrainian soldiers who refused to surrender were killed. He said, “the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers will be sent back to their motherland.”
The private military contractor has heavily recruited from Russian prisons over the last nine months. Previously it has deployed contingents to Syria and several African countries.
Prigozhin credited what he described as a wealth of fighting equipment and communications systems for giving his force an edge in battle.
What Ukraine is saying: Kyiv's military has said that Wagner fighters, some without body armor and carrying only grenades, have been killed in their hundreds after launching one assault after another against Soledar.
The Ukrainian military said late Saturday that heavy battles for the town continue, with one regional leader describing the situation as "difficult but controlled."
More on Wagner's leader: Prigozhin has been an increasingly visible figure in the conflict in Ukraine, visiting Wagner fighters on the front line and meeting former convicts who have completed their six-month tour of duty with Wagner. Prigozhin had promised them that in return for fighting they would be pardoned and be able to return home, rather than to prison.
He has frequently contrasted the achievements of his Wagner fighters with what he has criticized as the poor leadership of the military establishment in Russia — a rare example of open disagreement within Russia about the conduct of the Ukraine campaign.