Ukraine war: Zelenskyy insists 'Bakhmut holds' after reports Russia has taken control

Wagner chief announces victory but Ukraine forces reportedly seize more high ground overlooking the ruined city, leaving the occupiers vulnerable to attack

Wagner group troops wave the Russian flag over Bakhmut after claiming to have taken the entire ruined city. AFP
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The besieged city of Bakhmut remains in Ukraine’s possession the country’s President has insisted, despite claims that it has been taken by Russia.

After appearing to concede the battle-ravaged city had fallen early on Sunday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy later told a press conference at the G7 in Japan that Bakhmut “is not occupied by Russia”.

“There are no two or three interpretations of those words,” he said, adding that he would not share precise details.

The denials come after Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary group, claimed on Saturday that his troops had seized the last remaining Ukraine positions on the western suburbs and posted a picture of himself waving a Russian flag amid its ruins.

The mercenary leader said his troops had taken the last multi-story apartment building in south-western Bakhmut.

However, he also stated that his force, which has suffered massive losses with potentially up to 20,000 dead, would withdraw from the city on Thursday to be replaced by regular Russian troops.

Initially it appeared that Ukraine had conceded it had lost the city that has been fought over for more than a year.

A prominent Ukrainian military blogger known as WarMonitor, who has messaged “Bakhmut Holds” throughout the siege, tweeted late on Saturday: “Bakhmut has been captured by Russian forces”.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tells a press conference in Japan that Bakhmut has not fallen. EPA

But he added that Ukraine's forces had seized more high ground overlooking the city and that the occupying forces were vulnerable to attack. “The hills that surround create a shooting range,” wrote the blogger, who has 500,000 followers.

But Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar then stated on Telegram that Russia had failed to take the city, and that they had been “semi-encircled”.

“The advance of our troops in the suburbs on the flanks, which is still continuing, makes it very difficult for the enemy to be in Bakhmut,” she said, while conceding that the situation was “critical”.

Military analysts believe that the Ukrainians may have drawn the Russians deep into Bakhmut only for them to become surrounded, similar to the Soviets’ encirclement of German troops in Stalingrad in 1943.

Even if the battered city has been captured by Russia, the Pyrrhic victory could be soon forgotten if Ukraine manages successful breakthroughs along the rest of the 1,000km front line.

Yevgeny Prigozhin holding a Russian national flag in front of his soldiers in Bakhmut. AFP/Telegram

“If Ukraine can hold on for another week or 10 days it will become irrelevant as it [Bakhmut] will just be lost in the general offensive when it begins,” said military commentator Prof Michael Clarke.

There are also questions over whether exhausted Wagner troops will be able to be replaced by Russian soldiers by Thursday, given their vulnerability.

The Institute for Study of War think tank said: “Wagner forces are unlikely to successfully conduct a controlled withdrawal from Bakhmut while in contact with Ukrainian forces within five days without disrupting the Russian [defence ministry's] efforts to prepare for the planned Ukrainian counteroffensive.”

Speaking at the end of the G7 meeting in Hiroshima, President Zelenskyy said that although the flattened city was not tactically crucial, it had taken on symbolic importance after the bloodshed and destruction.

He added that the Second World War pictures of Hiroshima after the first atom bomb was dropped in 1945 reminded him of present-day Bakhmut.

Updated: May 22, 2023, 6:00 AM