Russia has claimed full control of Ukraine’s Bakhmut, with President Vladimir Putin congratulating his troops and the mercenary Wagner Group for taking over the largely leveled eastern city.
Russia’s announcement on Saturday came hours after Kyiv said the battle was still ongoing while admitting the situation was “critical”.
Bakhmut, a salt mining town that once had a population of 70,000 people, was the scene of the longest and bloodiest battle of Russia’s 15-month war in Ukraine.
The fall of Bakhmut, where Russia and Ukraine are believed to have suffered heavy losses, would represent Moscow’s first major victory in the conflict in more than 10 months.
“As a result of the offensive actions of the Wagner attack units, with the support of the artillery and aviation of the ‘Southern’ unit, the liberation of the city of Artemovsk was completed,” the Russian defense ministry said in a statement, using the Soviet-era name of Bakhmut.
“Vladimir Putin congratulated Wagner’s assault units as well as all the servicemen of the units of the Russian armed forces who provided them with the necessary support and flank cover, for completing the operation to liberate” the city, was quoted by the state news agency TASS. a Kremlin statement said.
The Russian president said that those who identify themselves will be given awards, the news agency added.
Wagner’s boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, previously claimed that the city had fallen to his mercenaries in a video posted on Telegram, in which fighters held up Russian flags against a backdrop of rubble. others.
“Today on May 20, around noon, Bakhmut was taken in its entirety,” Prigozhin said in the video, adding that Wagner fighters will search the captured city before handing it over to the Russian army.
“By May 25 we will fully check [Bakhmut]create the necessary defense lines and hand them over to the military,” said Prigozhin. “We will go to the field camps ourselves.”
The sound of artillery can be heard in the background of Prigozhin’s video.
‘Bakhmut will be released’
The claims came after a week in which Ukrainian forces made their fastest gains in six months in the northern and southern parts of Bakhmut.
Kyiv denied Prigozhin’s claim earlier Saturday but did not immediately respond to the defense ministry’s statement.
“Heavy fighting in Bakhmut. The situation is critical,” Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar posted on Telegram.
He said that Ukrainian troops “hold the defense” in the “Airplane area” of the city.
“Currently, our defenders control some industrial facilities and infrastructure in the area,” he said.
It was not possible for Al Jazeera to verify any of the claims.
Whether the Ukrainian forces left Bakhmut or not, they slowly pulled back inside it, to clusters of buildings on the western edge of the city. Meanwhile, in the north and south, they captured a lot of territory from the Russian troops.
Russia acknowledged losing some ground around Bakhmut last week, while denying Prigozhin’s claims that the flanks around the town guarded by regular troops had collapsed.
Kyiv says its goal in Bakhmut is to draw Russian forces from elsewhere on the front into the city, to inflict high casualties there and weaken Moscow’s defensive line elsewhere on the front. in a planned major counter-offensive.
Moscow has long claimed that the capture of Bakhmut would be a stepping stone towards development in the deeper Donbas region it claims to have annexed from Ukraine. It was made the prime target of a major offensive that failed to capture any significant ground elsewhere.
Prigozhin acknowledged that Bakhmut had little strategic significance, despite its great symbolic importance given the scale of the losses in Europe’s bloodiest battle since World War II.
The battle for Bakhmut meanwhile reveals a deepening rift between Wagner, a mercenary force that recruits thousands of prisoners from Russian prisons, and the regular Russian military.
For two weeks, Prigozhin issued daily video and audio messages criticizing Russia’s military leadership, often in expletive-laden rants.
In Saturday’s video, he said that because of the “whims” of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov, “five times more men died than they should have”. He thanked Putin “for giving us this opportunity and great honor to defend our homeland”.
Russia’s announcement that the city has fallen comes as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is scheduled to meet his American counterpart, Joe Biden, in Japan during the G7 summit.
Biden, who has led the West in backing Ukraine with sanctions and supplies, is “looking forward” to the meeting, a senior US official said, adding that it is expected to take place after 2:00pm local time. time (0500 GMT) on Sunday.
The Ukrainian president, who was taken on a plane by the French government, met not only the leaders of the G7 but also other main international players such as the unequal powers of Brazil and India.
The fruits of his diplomatic efforts are already bearing fruit, with the US announcing on Friday that Kyiv will be allowed to acquire F-16 fighter jets, the most sophisticated equipment provided by the West.
On his way to Japan, Zelenskyy also stopped at an Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia.
The Vatican said on Saturday that Pope Francis had asked Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, head of Italy’s bishops’ conference, to carry out a peace mission to try to help end the war.