President Volodymyr Zelensky denied Bakhmut had fallen to the Russians, his spokesman said Sunday, while admitting there was “nothing left” of the flattened city after the longest battle of the war.
A day after President Vladimir Putin congratulated his troops and private mercenary group Wagner who claimed to have taken the symbolic target, Zelensky suggested it would be a pyrrhic victory for Moscow in a lengthy, emotional answer.
“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 had to clarify that the Ukrainian president did not confirm the loss of Bakhmut to Russian troops.
“The president denied the capture of Bakhmut,” spokesman Sergiy Nykyforov said on Facebook.
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 given the city’s lack of strategic importance in the broader war.
Zelensky was not clear in his reply when asked: “Is Bakhmut still in Ukraine’s hands? The Russians say they have taken Bakhmut.”
He said: “I think no.”
“There is nothing in this place... just ruins and a lot of dead Russians,” he told reporters.
Saturday’s announcement from the Russian army came hours after Kyiv said the battle was continuing, while admitting the situation was “critical”.
Bakhmut, a salt-mining town that once had a population of 70,000 people, has been the scene of the longest and 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 defence 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.
Backdrop of ruins
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.
“By May 25 we will completely examine (Bakhmut), create the necessary lines of defence and hand it to the military,” Prigozhin said.
Artillery fire could be heard in the background of Prigozhin’s video.
Ukraine, which this month claimed successes in and around Bakhmut, had said Saturday that the battle was not over.
“Heavy fighting in Bakhmut. The situation is critical,” deputy defence minister Ganna Malyar posted on Telegram.
She said Ukrainian troops were “holding the defence” in the city’s “Airplane area”.
“As of now, our defenders control certain industrial and infrastructure facilities in the area,” she said.
It was not possible for AFP to verify either claim.
Zelensky 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 US announcing Friday it would allow Kyiv to acquire F-16 fighter jets, the most sophisticated material yet supplied by the West.
Prigozhin meanwhile continued his running battle with Russia’s military establishment.
“The operation to capture Bakhmut -- the Bakhmut meat grinder -- lasted 224 days,” Prigozhin said, wearing a camouflage uniform. Moscow’s losses would have been far smaller if it was not for incompetent generals, he added.
Wagner is believed to have suffered huge losses in the months-long storming of the city. Prigozhin has long complained about Wagner not being given appropriate amounts of ammunition.
“There was only Wagner here (in Bakhmut),” he said in the video. “We fought not only the Ukrainian army here, we fought Russian bureaucracy.”
He blamed Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov for turning the offensive into “their own amusement”.
The two camps are now awaiting a counteroffensive announced by Ukrainian authorities. Zelensky said recently that his army needs more time before launching the assault.