Ukraine on Sunday denied Bakhmut had fallen to Russian troops in the longest battle of the war and said it was instead advancing around the suburbs, making it “very difficult” for Russian troops to stay in the devastated city.
A day after President Vladimir Putin congratulated his troops and private mercenary group Wagner who claimed to have taken the city in eastern Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky suggested it would be a pyrrhic victory for Moscow.
“You have to understand there is nothing” there in Bakhmut, he said, sat next to U.S. President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan.
“For today, Bakhmut is only in our hearts.”
Zelensky’s spokesman later clarified that the Ukrainian president was not confirming the loss of Bakhmut to Russian troops.
“The president denied the capture of Bakhmut,” spokesman Sergiy Nykyforov said on Facebook.
Deputy Defense Minister Ganna Malyar then said Ukrainian troops “have semi-encircled the city.”
“The advance of our troops in the suburbs on the flanks, which is still ongoing, makes it very difficult for the enemy to be in Bakhmut.”
She said Ukrainian troops were still in control of a residential area and some industrial facilities.
The loss of Bakhmut would be hugely symbolic for the Ukrainians, who had held on for months, ignoring U.S. advice behind the scenes to focus elsewhere.
But some analysts have said Ukraine has inflicted heavy losses on Russia in Bakhmut and forced it to commit large resources, potentially weakening its defenses in other parts of the front line.
Backdrop of ruins
Bakhmut, a salt-mining town that once had a population of 70,000 people, has been the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting in Moscow’s more than year-long Ukraine offensive.
The fall of Bakhmut, where both Moscow and Kyiv are believed to have suffered huge losses, would allow Moscow to bring home a key victory after a series of humiliating defeats.
It would also come before a major counteroffensive that Kyiv has been preparing for months. Zelensky himself has warned that the city’s loss would open the way for Russian troops to capture more of the Donbas region.
“As a result of offensive actions of the Wagner assault units, with the support of artillery and aviation of the ‘Southern’ unit, the liberation of the city of Artemovsk was completed,” Russia’s Defense Ministry said, using the Soviet-era name of Bakhmut.
“Vladimir Putin congratulated the assault units of Wagner as well as all servicemen of units of the Russian armed forces who provided them with the necessary support and flank cover, on the completion of the operation to liberate” the city, TASS news agency quoted a Kremlin statement as saying.
Wagner’s boss Yevgeny Prigozhin earlier claimed Bakhmut had fallen to his mercenaries in a video posted on Telegram against a backdrop of ruins.
“Today on May 20, around midday, Bakhmut was taken in its entirety,” Prigozhin said, adding that Wagner fighters would search the city before handing it over to the Russian army.
Artillery fire could be heard in the background of Prigozhin’s video.
It was not possible for AFP to verify these claims.
New weapons package
Zelensky had made a surprise appearance Saturday at the Hiroshima summit — another diplomatic coup a day after he attended the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia.
In Japan, Biden, who has spearheaded Western backing of Ukraine with sanctions and supplies, announced a new package of weapons for Kyiv.
The package would include “ammunition, artillery, armoured vehicles,” Biden said.
The Ukrainian president met not just G7 leaders in Japan but those from other key international players such as unaligned powers Brazil and India.
The fruits of his diplomatic efforts have already paid off, with the U.S. announcing Friday it would allow Kyiv to acquire F-16 fighter jets, the most sophisticated material yet supplied by the West.
The two camps are now awaiting a counteroffensive announced by Ukrainian authorities. Zelensky said recently his army needs more time before launching the assault.