(Reuters) – Ukraine says its troops are holding out despite heavy fighting on a battlefield littered with bodies in a salt mining town in eastern Ukraine, where Russian mercenaries have claimed Moscow’s first significant gain in half a year.

* The ultra-nationalist contract militia Wagner, run by an ally of President Vladimir Putin, claims to have taken Soledar after intense fighting that it said had left the town strewn with Ukrainian dead. But Moscow has held off officially proclaiming victory.

* Ukraine has acknowledged Russian advances but Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar told a briefing on Thursday that fighting was still fierce.

* A capture of the small town, pre-war population 10,000, would be Moscow’s most substantial gain since a series of retreats throughout much of the second half of 2022.

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* Kremlin-watchers are poring over Russia’s latest switch of battlefield leadership after Valery Gerasimov, chief of the military’s general staff, was unexpectedly given direct command of the invasion.

* Russian and Western commentators alike saw attempts to shift blame for setbacks in which Russia has lost around 40% of the territory it had seized since February.

* The commander of Russian ground forces visited Belarus to inspect the combat readiness of a joint force stationed there. Increased joint military activity has prompted Ukraine to warn that Russia may try to launch a new ground invasion of Ukraine from Belarus.

* Russia could raise the upper age limit for citizens to be conscripted into the armed forces as soon as this spring, a senior lawmaker has said, as part of Moscow’s plans to boost the number of Russian troops by 30%.

* German Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck said Germany should not stand in the way of other countries’ military support for Ukraine, referring to a Polish push to send German-built Leopard battle tanks to Ukraine. The move would require German consent.

* Ukrainian judges named the last of eight new members to a judicial oversight body – a step towards cleaning up Ukraine’s courts, one of the European Union’s main recommendations when it offered Ukraine candidate member status in June.

* Russian state budget revenue from oil taxes declined in December to 511.7 billion roubles ($7.6 billion), the lowest since March 2021, according to data from the Finance Ministry, following a slide in oil prices.

* Car sales in Russia collapsed by 58.8% in 2022, the Association of European Businesses (AEB) said, as the industry reels from the impact of Western sanctions on Moscow.

(Compiled by Kevin Liffey)

Copyright 2023 Thomson Reuters.

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