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What Russia's claim on the capture of Soledar means for Ukraine

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Over the weekend, deadly Russian airstrikes hit multiple cities in Ukraine. The air attacks come as fierce fighting rages in the eastern Donetsk region, where Russia claims to have captured the salt mining town of Soledar, a claim that Ukrainian officials dispute. To break down Russia's military goals, we have Sergey Radchenko, a professor of Russian history at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He joins us from Davos, Switzerland. Good morning.

SERGEY RADCHENKO: Morning to you.

FADEL: So let's first discuss the significance of Soledar. What makes this town strategically important to Russia's military goals?

RADCHENKO: Well, it is important because it will allow the Russians to capture another town that has been the center of fighting recently, the town of Bakhmut. But it's more important, I think, symbolically than it is strategically because this is the town where the forces of Wagner, headed by Putin's so-called chef, Yevgeny Prigozhin, are trying to prove that they're actually capable of taking back or taking territory from the Ukrainians. So it is really - you know, the capture of this town is a question of a struggle for power within the Russian military establishment and the Russian political elites, more than even - more than the strategic aspect of it.

FADEL: And it's exposed some rifts, right? I mean, this possible capture has shown that the head of the Wagner Group has actually said, well, we're not getting the credit we deserve.

RADCHENKO: Well, he has really come to the fore, Yevgeny Prigozhin has, in recent months. Before that, he was really in the shadow. You know, Wagner was pursuing military activities in Africa and in Syria. And suddenly, they're playing this role in Ukraine, where the Russian military are suffering defeats. And it seems to be that it's like - you know, for Prigozhin, it's part of his political campaign to establish himself, to position himself for the inevitable power struggle that will follow Putin's exit, whenever this happens.

FADEL: Now, what does that rift mean militarily then? I mean, President Putin has just appointed a new top general to run Russia's Armed Forces and the war in Ukraine. Why a new commander now? Is this part of that struggle?

RADCHENKO: Well, a new commander, I think, is needed ahead of big operations that the Russians are intending to carry out in Ukraine come spring. It's clear that both Ukrainians and Russians are planning large-scale offensive operations, and this is part of the planning process, I think. On the other hand, it is also an effort to move the chairs around as Putin plays the power game, which involves, of course, the military in the one side, Prigozhin and Wagner on the other side and so on and so forth. I don't think it is a particularly significant move, but it is part of that general atmosphere of political struggle at the Kremlin and also Putin's preparation for the offensive operations.

FADEL: Will the Russian military be able to solve its problems that it's seen in Ukraine - training, equipping its forces? I mean, this originally was supposed to be a short war, according to Putin. And here we are, a year in almost.

RADCHENKO: Russia is facing grave problems, in particular with ammunition, as it continues its brutal war against Ukraine. Putin has declared mobilization and brought in 300,000 recruits. And it seems that this mobilization will continue if these recruits are used up, so to speak, in the fighting. He is determined to continue the war. He's determined to bring in as many people as he can afford - and he can afford many because Russia is a big country. And, of course, there's also the big question of whether Russian military industry is going to be able to catch up with the requirements of war. And the verdict is still out on this. The verdict is still out. The Russians are bringing weapons and ammunition from other countries, especially from Iran and North Korea. We'll see if those efforts succeed. But it is very important at this stage to continue supporting the Ukrainian effort, for our part, to make sure that we can counter this Russian offensive.

FADEL: That's Sergey Radchenko of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Thank you.

RADCHENKO: Thank you for having me.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

California continues to get drenched by storms. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.