Russian private army chief claims control of Bahmut, but Ukraine says fighting continues

KYIV, Ukraine — The head of Russia’s private army, Wagner, claimed on Saturday that his forces had taken control of the town of Bahmut after the longest and fiercest battle of the Russian-Ukrainian war, a claim denied by Ukrainian defense officials.

In a video posted on Telegram, Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of Wagner, said that the city came under full Russian control around noon on Saturday. He spoke alongside about half a dozen warriors, the background of ruined buildings and explosions in the distance.

However, after the release of the video, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar announced that the fierce fighting would continue.

“The situation is critical,” he said. “Currently, our defenders control certain industrial and infrastructure facilities in this area.”

Serhiy Cherevaty, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Eastern Command, told The Associated Press that Prigozhin’s claim “is not true. Our units are fighting in Bahmut.” The Ukrainian General Staff said in a statement on Facebook that “the heavy battles for the city of Bahmut will not stop.”

Mykhailo Podolyak, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi’s chief of staff, said: “This is not the first time that Prigozhin has said that ‘we have seized and controlled everything.’ He also suggested that the Wagner leader’s statement was intended to deflect attention from Zelenskyy’s recent high-profile overseas trips, including Saturday’s Group of Seven summit in Japan.

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Fighting has been raging in and around Bakhmut for more than eight months.

If Russian forces take control of Bakhmut, they will still face the enormous task of capturing the part of the Donetsk region still under Ukrainian control, including several heavily fortified areas.

It is unclear which side paid the higher price in the battle for Bahmut. Both Russia and Ukraine suffered losses in the thousands, although neither reported casualties.

Zelensky stressed the importance of protecting Bahmut in an interview with The Associated Press in March, saying his fall could allow Russia to win international support for a deal that could require unacceptable compromises from Kiev.

Analysts say the fall of Bahmut would be a blow to Ukraine and give Russia tactical advantages, but would not be decisive in the outcome of the war.

Russian forces still face a formidable task in capturing the rest of the Ukrainian-controlled Donetsk region, including several heavily fortified areas. Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk province make up Donbas, Ukraine’s industrial heartland, where a separatist uprising began in 2014 and which Moscow illegally annexed in September.

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About 55 kilometers north of Russian-held Donetsk, Bahmut had a population of 80,000 before the war and was an important industrial center surrounded by salt and gypsum mines.

The city, which was named Artyomovsk after a Bolshevik revolutionary when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, was also known for producing champagne in underground caves. Its wide, tree-lined boulevards, lush parks and imposing downtown with stately late 19th-century mansions – now a smoldering wasteland – have made it a popular tourist destination.

When a separatist rebellion swept eastern Ukraine in 2014, weeks after Moscow illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, the rebels quickly gained control of the city, only to lose it a few months later.

After Russia shifted its focus to the Donbass following a failed attempt to capture Kiev at the start of the February 2022 invasion, Moscow forces attempted to take Bahmut in August but were repulsed.

The fighting there eased in the fall when Russia faced a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the east and south, but resumed full steam late last year. In January, Russia captured the salt-mining town of Soledar, north of Bahmut, and sealed off the city’s outskirts.

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Intense Russian shelling targeted the town and nearby villages as Moscow launched a three-pronged attack to try to end resistance in what Ukrainians call “Fortress Bakhmut”.

Wagner’s mercenaries were at the forefront of the Russian offensive. Prigozhin tried to use the battle for the city to increase his influence amid tensions with Russian military leaders, whom he harshly criticized.

“We fought not only the Ukrainian armed forces in Bahmut. We fought the Russian bureaucracy, which threw sand in the wheels,” Prigozhin said in Saturday’s video.

Relentless Russian artillery bombardment left few buildings untouched amid fierce house-to-house fighting. The Wagner fighters “marched on the dead bodies of their own soldiers,” according to Ukrainian officials. Both sides expended ammunition at a rate not seen in armed conflict for decades, firing thousands of rounds a day.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said capturing the city would allow Russia to push its offensive further into the Donetsk region, one of four Ukrainian provinces illegally annexed by Moscow in September.