KIEV – Ukraine said its forces still control a small part of Bakhmut despite Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday hailing the « liberation » of the eastern Ukrainian city under attack by Russian forces.
Asked Sunday whether the Russians had taken Bakhmut, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy replied, « I think not, » at a press conference at the G7 meeting in Hiroshima, Japan.
Russia’s Wagner mercenary force on Saturday claimed the capture of the industrial city in the Donbass region, which has been at the center of some of the fiercest fighting in Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
Putin on Sunday congratulated the Wagner paramilitary group and the Russian military « on completing the operation to free » Bakhmut, according to a declaration on the Kremlin’s website.
But Ukrainian officials said several buildings in the southwestern part of the city remain under Kiev control.
“It is a small area that has remained under our control, but Bakhmut has fulfilled his fundamental task. We managed to hold the enemy – for more than nine months – and inflicted colossal losses on the Kremlin’s most important strike force, the Wagner mercenaries, » Serhiy Cherevatyi, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Eastern Command, told POLITICO on Sunday.
There was some confusion over Zelenskyy’s remarks in Japan, but his spokesman Sergii Nykyforov clarified that the president had denied that Moscow had full control over Bakhmut.
Speaking to reporters at Sunday’s G7 summit, Zelenskyy was asked: “Is Bakhmut still in Ukraine’s hands? The Russians say they have taken Bakhmut.” Zelensky replied: “I think not. But you have to understand that they destroyed everything. Nothing left. It’s a tragedy. »
“For today, Bakhmut is only in our hearts. There is nothing in that place. Just a lot of dead Russians,” Zelenskyy said.
Later in Hiroshima, Zelenskyy specified that Bakhmut was not fully captured by Russian forces. « We are still fighting and maintaining defense thanks to our warriors, » he said.
Cherevatyi, the Eastern Command spokesman, said Ukrainian forces were gaining ground around Bakhmut. “The situation is difficult, but it is under control. While we are attacking the enemy on the southern and northern flanks around the city, ”he said.
« During the last 24 hours, we managed to advance an average of 200 meters from the south and north flanks, » Cherevatyi said.
He said the Ukrainian army’s main goal in Bakhmut was to destroy the Wagner mercenaries, a Kremlin-linked private paramilitary group funded by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin. “They have proven themselves to be the most combat-ready and effective force in the Russian army. And now they are almost destroyed, » Cherevatyi said.
On Saturday, Prigozhin had said in a video posted on Telegram that Bakhmut came under complete Russian control around noon on Saturday.
Earlier this month, Wagner commanders accused Moscow of artificially creating shell shortages for the mercenary force and causing mass casualties. Wagner accused the Kremlin of being jealous of the frontline group’s successes, particularly after defense ministry units were forced to withdraw from Kharkiv and Kherson during the September 2022 Ukrainian counter-offensive.