President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Sunday that Russian forces did not occupy Bakhmutcasting doubt on Moscow’s insistence that the eastern Ukrainian city had fallen.
In response to a reporter’s question about the city’s status at the Group of Seven summit in Japan, Zelenskyy said: “Bakhmut is not occupied by the Russian Federation today.”
“We don’t throw people (away) to die,” Zelenskyy said in Ukrainian through an interpreter. “People are the treasure. I clearly understand what is happening in Bakhmut. I cannot share with you the technical details of what is happening with our warriors.”
The fog of war made it impossible to confirm the situation on the ground in the invasion’s longest battle, and a series of comments by Ukrainian and Russian officials added to the confusion.
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Zelenskyy’s response in English to a question earlier at the summit about Bakhmut’s status suggested he believed the city had fallen to Russian forces, and he offered solemn words about its fate.
Asked if the city was in Ukraine’s hands, Zelenskyy said: “I think no, but you have to – to understand that there is nothing, they have destroyed everything. There are no buildings. It’s a shame. It’s a tragedy.”
“But for today, Bakhmut exists only in our hearts. There is nothing in this place, so – only land and – and a lot of dead Russians,” he said.
Zelenskyy’s press secretary later walked back the earlier comments.
Ukrainian defense and military officials said heavy fighting is ongoing. Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar even went so far as to say that Ukrainian troops “took the city in a semi-encirclement.”
“The enemy failed to encircle Bakhmut, and they lost some of the dominant heights around the city,” Malyar said. “That is, the advance of our troops in the suburbs along the flanks, which is still ongoing, greatly complicates the presence of the enemy in Bakhmut.”
And the spokesman for Ukraine’s Eastern group of forces, Serhii Cherevaty, said that the Ukrainian military is managing to hold positions in the vicinity of Bakhmut.
“The president rightly said that the city has effectively been razed to the ground. The enemy is being destroyed every day by massive artillery and airstrikes, and our units report that the situation is extremely difficult.
“Our military maintains fortifications and several premises in the south-western part of the city. Tough battles are going on, he says.
It was just the latest flip-flopping of the situation in Bakhmut after eight months of intense fighting.
Just hours earlier, new Russian state authorities reported that President Vladimir Putin congratulated “Wagner assault divisions, 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”, which is Bakhmut’s Soviet-era name.
Russia’s Defense Ministry also said Wagner and military units “completed the liberation” of Bakhmut.
At the G-7 in Japan, Zelenskyy stood side by side with US President Joe Biden during a press conference. Biden announced an additional $375 million in aid to Ukraine, which included more ammunition, artillery and vehicles.
“I thanked him for the significant financial support to (Ukraine) from (US),” Zelenskyy later tweeted.
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The new pledge came after the United States agreed to allow training on American-made F-16 fighter jets, laying the groundwork for their eventual transfer to Ukraine. Biden said Sunday that Zelenskyy had given the United States a “flat assurance” that Ukraine would not use the F-16 jets to attack Russian territory.
Many analysts say that even if Russia won at Bakhmut, it was unlikely to turn the tide of the war.
The Russian capture of the last remaining ground in Bakhmut is “not tactically or operationally significant,” a Washington-based think tank said late Saturday. The Institute for the Study of War said that taking control of these areas “does not provide Russian forces with operationally significant terrain to continue conducting offensive operations” nor to “defend against possible Ukrainian counterattacks.”
In a video posted on Telegram, Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said the city came under full Russian control by noon on Saturday. He spoke surrounded by half a dozen fighters, with destroyed buildings in the background and explosions heard in the distance.
Russian forces are still trying to take the remaining part of the Donetsk region still under Ukrainian control, including several heavily fortified areas.
It is not clear which side has paid a higher price in the battle for Bakhmut. Both Russia and Ukraine have suffered losses believed to be in the thousands, but neither has disclosed casualty numbers.
Zelenskyy underscored the importance of defending Bakhmut in an interview with The Associated Press in March, saying its fall could allow Russia to rally international support for a deal that could require Kiev to make unacceptable compromises.
Analysts have said that Bakhmut’s fall would be a blow to Ukraine and give some tactical advantages to Russia, but it would not prove decisive in the outcome of the war.
Bakhmut, located about 55 kilometers (34 miles) north of the Russian-held regional capital Donetsk, had a population of 80,000 before the war and was an important industrial center, surrounded by salt and gypsum mines.
Named Artyomovsk after a Bolshevik revolutionary when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, the city was also known for its production of sparkling wine in underground caves. Its wide tree-lined avenues, leafy parks and stately center with impressive late 19th-century mansions – all now reduced to a smoldering wasteland – made it a popular tourist destination.
When a separatist insurgency engulfed eastern Ukraine in 2014 weeks after Moscow’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, the rebels quickly won control of the city, only to lose it a few months later.
After Russia shifted focus to the Donbas following a failed attempt to capture Kiev at the start of the February 2022 invasion, Moscow’s troops attempted to take Bakhmut in August but were pushed back.
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Fighting there subsided in the fall as Russia confronted Ukrainian counter-offensives in the east and south, but resumed in full swing late last year. In January, Russia captured the salt mining town of Soledar, just north of Bakhmut, and closed in on the city’s suburbs.
Intense Russian shelling targeted the city and nearby villages as Moscow launched a three-pronged assault to try to end resistance in what Ukrainians called “Fortress Bakhmut”.
Wagner mercenaries spearheaded the Russian offensive. Prigozhin sought to use the battle for the city to expand his influence amid tensions with top Russian military leaders whom he harshly criticized.
“We were not only fighting the Ukrainian armed forces in Bakhmut. We were fighting the Russian bureaucracy, which was throwing sand in the wheels,” Prigozhin said in the video on Saturday.
The relentless Russian artillery bombardment left few buildings intact amid fierce house-to-house fighting. Wagner fighters “marched against the bodies of their own soldiers,” according to Ukrainian officials. Both sides have expended ammunition at a rate not seen in any armed conflict in decades, firing thousands of rounds a day.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has said the capture of the city would allow Russia to push its offensive further into the Donetsk region, one of four Ukrainian provinces that Moscow illegally annexed in September.