KYIV, UKRAINE (AFP) – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky denied Bakhmut had fallen to the Russians, his spokesman said yesterday, while admitting there was “nothing left” of the flattened city after the longest battle of the war.
A day after Russian 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 United States (US) President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the Group of Seven 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 US 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,” 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 the more than year-long Ukraine conflict.
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.
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.
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.