KYIV — Ukraine said its forces still control a small part of Bakhmut despite Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday hailing the “liberation” of the embattled eastern Ukrainian city by Russian forces.
Asked on Sunday if Russians had taken Bakhmut, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy responded “I think no,” 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 Donbas 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 army “on the completion of the operation to liberate” Bakhmut, according to a statement on the Kremlin’s website.
But Ukrainian officials said several buildings in the southwestern part of the city remain under Kyiv’s control.
“It is a small area that remained under our control, but Bakhmut fulfilled its key task. We managed to hold the enemy — for more than nine months — and inflicted colossal losses on the Kremlin’s most important strike force, Wagner mercenaries,” Serhiy Cherevatyi, spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern command, told POLITICO on Sunday.
There was some confusion about Zelenskyy’s remarks in Japan, but his spokesman Sergii Nykyforov clarified that the president had denied that Moscow had full control over Bakhmut.
While speaking to reporters at the G7 summit on Sunday, Zelenskyy was asked: “Is Bakhmut still in Ukraine’s hands? Russians say they’ve taken Bakhmut.” Zelenskyy responded: “I think no. But you have to understand they destroyed everything. There’s nothing left. It is a tragedy.”
“For today Bakhmut is only in our hearts. There’s nothing in that place. Just a lot of dead Russians,” Zelenskyy said.
Later in Hiroshima, Zelenskyy specified that Bakhmut has not been fully captured by Russian forces. “We’re fighting still, and holding defense thanks to our warriors,” he said.
Cherevatyi, the eastern command spokesman, said Ukrainian forces are making gains around Bakhmut. “The situation is hard, but it is under control. As we are attacking the enemy on southern and northern flanks around the town,” he said.
“During the last 24 hours, we managed to advance 200 meters on average from the southern and northern flanks,” Cherevatyi said.
He said the main goal of the Ukrainian army in Bakhmut was to destroy Wagner mercenaries, a private Kremlin-linked paramilitary group financed by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin. “They showed themselves as the most combat-ready and effective force of the Russian army. And now they are almost destroyed,” Cherevatyi said.
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 group’s successes on the front lines, particularly after defense ministry units were forced to retreat from Kharkiv and Kherson during Ukraine’s September 2022 counteroffensive.