The Ukrainian army withdrew from the salt mining town of Soledar to “save the lives of its personnel,” Serhii Cherevatyi, a spokesman for the Ukrainian armed forces in the east, told The Associated Press.
The soldiers retreated to previously prepared defensive positions, he said.
Moscow has portrayed the battle of Soledar, which is near the city of Bakhmut, as key to conquering the entire Donbas.
The achievement brings Russian forces one step closer to Bakhmut, but military analysts say the capture of Soledar is more symbolic than strategic.
The Ukrainian army, which has held out in Soledar against a months-long attack by superior Russian forces, has said the fierce defense of the eastern stronghold helped tie down Russian troops.
Russia claimed it had taken Soledar almost two weeks ago, but Ukraine denied it.
Many of the Russian troops around Soledar belong to the private Russian military contractor Wagner Group, and the fighting has reportedly been bloody.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has prioritized full control of the Donbas, a region made up of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, where it has supported a separatist insurgency since 2014. Russia has taken most of Luhansk, but about half of Donetsk remains. under the control of Ukraine.
By taking control of the city, Russian forces could potentially cut supply lines to Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut, although the strength of Ukraine’s new defensive positions was not known.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, said earlier this month that Soledar’s fall would not “constitute an operationally significant development and is unlikely to predict an imminent Russian encirclement of Bakhmut.”
The institute said Russian intelligence operations have overstated “the importance of Soledar,” a small settlement. It also argued that the long and difficult battle contributed to the exhaustion of the Russian armed forces.
Perhaps even more worrying for Moscow, Western military aid to Ukraine is now ramping up with the delivery of tanks.
Elsewhere, Russian forces have continued to shell Ukrainian areas, particularly in the south and east.
Russian strikes injured 10 civilians in eastern Donetsk province on Tuesday, said Pavlo Kyrylenko, the province’s governor.
Five were injured when Russian shells slammed into apartment buildings, he said.
The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said on Wednesday that Russian forces had carried out four rocket attacks, 26 airstrikes and more than 100 attacks with missile salvo systems in the past 24 hours.
Russian forces are concentrating their efforts on gaining control of Donetsk province and are conducting offensive operations around the disputed towns of Bakhmut, Lyman and Avdiivka, and the village of Novopavlivka, spokesman Oleksandr Shtupun said.
In addition to Donetsk, Russian attacks hit settlements in the northeastern provinces of Kharkiv and Sumy, northern Chernihiv, easternmost Luhansk, southeastern Zaporizhzhia and southern Kherson provinces.
Meanwhile, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the president of Ukraine who has gone from a professional comedian to an internationally recognized wartime leader, turned 45 on Wednesday.
His wife, first lady Olena Zelenska, said that while he is the same person as when they met at age 17, “something has changed: you smile a lot less now.”
“I wish you had more reasons to smile. And you know what it takes. We all do,” she wrote in a tweet.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine