Zelensky denies that the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut was occupied by Russian forces
HIROSHIMA, Japan — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi said on Sunday that Russian forces would not take Bakhmut, challenging Moscow’s claims that the eastern Ukrainian city had fallen.
Responding to a reporter’s question about the city’s situation at the Group of Seven meeting in Japan, Zelensky said: “Bakhmut is still not occupied by the Russian Federation.”
The fog of war has made it impossible to confirm the situation on the ground in the longest battle of the invasion, and several comments by Ukrainian and Russian officials have caused confusion in the matter.
Zelensky’s answer in English to the question about the status of Bakhmut earlier at the summit was interpreted by many as meaning that the city had fallen into the hands of Russian forces.
Asked if the city was in Ukrainian hands, Zelensky said: “I don’t think so, but you have to understand that there is nothing, everything was destroyed. There are no buildings. Damage. This is a tragedy.”
“But today Bakhmut is only in our hearts. There’s nothing in this place, so — just dirt and — and a lot of dead Russians,” he said.
Zelenskyy’s press secretary later denied these earlier comments.
Ukrainian defense and military officials also said there was heavy fighting. Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar even said that Ukrainian troops “half surrounded the city”.
“The enemy was unable to surround Bahmut 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 in progress, will greatly complicate the presence of the enemy in Bakhmut.”
And Serhiy Cherevaty, the spokesman of the Ukrainian Eastern Forces Group, said that the Ukrainian army managed to occupy positions around Bahmut.
“The president was right to say that the city was actually razed to the ground. The enemy is being decimated daily by massive artillery and air strikes, and our units report that the situation is extremely difficult.
“Our military maintains fortifications and several premises in the southwestern part of the city. Heavy fighting is going on,” he said.
After eight months of intense fighting, this was only the latest breakthrough in the situation in Bakhmut.
Only a few hours earlier, new Russian state agencies reported that President Vladimir Putin congratulated “the Wagner assault squads and all the soldiers of the Russian Armed Forces who provided them with the necessary support and flank protection to complete the liberation operation.” Artyomovsk”, which is Bahmut’s Soviet-era name.
The Russian Defense Ministry also said Wagner and military units had “completed” the liberation of Bahmut.
At the G-7 in Japan, Zelenskyy stood next to US President Joe Biden at a press conference. Biden announced $375 million more in aid to Ukraine, which included more ammunition, artillery and vehicles.
“I thanked him for the significant financial assistance (from the United States) to (Ukraine),” Zelensky later wrote.
The new pledge comes after the United States agreed to allow training on American-made F-16 fighter jets, setting the stage for their eventual transfer to Ukraine. Biden said Sunday that Zelensky had given the United States “flat assurances” that Ukraine would not use the F-16s to attack Russian territory.
Even if Russia won at Bahmut, many analysts say it is unlikely to reverse the war.
A Washington-based think tank said late Saturday that the Russian seizure of Bahmut’s last remaining territory was “not tactically or operationally significant.” The Institute for the Study of War stated that control of these areas “does not provide Russian forces with operationally significant terrain to conduct offensive operations” nor “to defend against possible Ukrainian counterattacks.”
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 surrounded by about half a dozen warriors, with ruined buildings in the background and explosions in the distance.
Russian forces continue to seek to capture 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 Kiev to make unacceptable compromises.
According to analysts, the fall of Bahmut would be a blow to Ukraine and a tactical advantage for Russia, but would not be decisive for the outcome of the war.
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 making 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.
Heavy Russian shelling targeted the city and nearby villages as Moscow launched a three-pronged offensive to crush 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.
Elise Morton reported from London and Susie Blann from Kyiv, Ukraine.
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