Ukraine: Zelenskiy denies Russian claims to have taken Bakhmut
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has denied Russian claims to have captured the key Donbas city of Bakhmut, saying Ukrainian forces still held positions in the city.
“Bakhmut is not occupied by Russian Federation as of today,” he told a press conference at the G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan.
Zelenskiy’s insistence that Ukraine still had a foothold in the contested city came after the Kremlin and the Wagner mercenary group claimed victory, saying they had seized the last urban areas in Bakhmut. In an earlier appearance, Zelenskiy appeared to concede Bakhmut had finally fallen to Russian forces after a bloody eight-month battle.
“You have to understand that there is nothing. They destroyed everything. For today, Bakhmut is only in our hearts. There is nothing in this place ... just ruins and a lot of dead Russians,” he said.
In his later comments, Zelenskiy added that photographs of the destruction of Hirosihima during the second world war reminded him of Bakhmut and other destroyed Ukrainian cities.
Russian state news agencies cited the Kremlin’s press service as saying President Vladimir Putin “congratulates the Wagner assault detachments, as well as all servicemen of the Russian armed forces units, who provided them with the necessary support and flank protection, on the completion of the operation to liberate Artyomovsk [the city’s Soviet-era name].”
In a video posted earlier on Telegram, Wagner’s head, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said the city came under complete Russian control at about midday on Saturday. He spoke flanked by about a half dozen fighters, with ruined buildings in the background and explosions heard in the distance.
While there is confusion surrounding who controls Bakhmut, what does appear to be clear, however, is that Ukrainian forces in the city have struggled in recent days.
On Saturday, the deputy defence minister, Hanna Malyar, posted on Telegram: “Heavy fighting in Bakhmut. The situation is critical,” adding that despite Russian advances within the city, recent Ukrainian counteroffensives outside Bakhmut had allowed Ukraine to partly encircle Kremlin forces in the countryside.
She added that Ukrainian troops were “holding the defence” in the city’s “Airplane area” referring to the now-destroyed MiG-17 monument at Bakhmut’s western entrance close to a multi-storey block Wagner claimed had been the last building held by Ukrainian forces.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskiy, suggested Russian claims of victory were aimed at drawing attention away from Zelenskiy’s recent high-profile trips overseas, including to the G7 summit. “This is not the first time Prigozhin has said ‘we seized everything and are dominating’.”
While Wagner claimed to have occupied every building in the city itself, heavy fighting appeared to be continuing just beyond the outskirts of the city around Ivanivske, Stupochky, and Bila Hora suggesting the wider Bakhmut sector was still being heavily contested.
Both Russia and Ukraine have endured losses believed to be in the thousands, though neither has disclosed casualty numbers.
Once home to 70,000 people, the battle for Bakhmut – even if it has finally fallen – has also become a symbol of the severe limitations of Russian arms. Located about 34 miles north of the Russian-held regional capital of Donetsk, the city was an important industrial centre, surrounded by salt and gypsum mines.
After Moscow failed in its effort to capture Kyiv and install its own puppet regime at the beginning of the war in 2022, Russia threw most of its efforts into capturing a series of important cities in the Donbas, including Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, with Bakhmut seen as a stepping stone to that wider ambition.
However, the Russian advance became bogged down around Bakhmut as the small city took on an outsized importance for the Kremlin despite its minor strategic importance.
The claimed Russian victory was dismissed by analysts as largely insignificant. In its daily update late on Saturday, the Institute for the Study of War said the claimed capture of the last urban areas “does not grant Russian forces operationally significant terrain to continue conducting offensive operations or any particularly strong position from which to defend against possible Ukrainian counterattacks”.
Images posted online on Saturday evening appeared to show the city, which has been reduced to rubble in the longest battle of the conflict in Ukraine, being hit by dozens of incendiary munitions.
After the Prigozhin video appeared on Saturday, Serhiy Cherevatyi, spokesperson for Ukraine’s eastern command, told the Associated Press that Prigozhin’s claim was not true. “Our units are fighting in Bakhmut.” he added. In a statement on Facebook, the Ukrainian general staff said “heavy battles for the city of Bakhmut do not stop”.
Despite the claimed victory, Russian forces will still face the massive task of seizing the remaining part of the Donetsk region under Ukrainian control, including several heavily fortified areas and less favourable terrain that is more advantageous to defenders.
Beyond Bakhmut, Kyiv has had months to dig miles of new trenches in the open countryside while also heavily fortifying positions in the nearby cities with the higher ground to the west of Bakhmut occupied by Ukrainian artillery positions.