Russia claimed victory in Bakhmut, though Ukrainian officials said fighting for the devastated eastern Ukrainian city was continuing.
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The May 20 claim from Russia’s Defense Ministry, as well as the head of the Wagner mercenary group, was followed by a congratulatory statement from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Ukrainian commanders quickly pushed back on the Russian declarations, with the commander of the country’s ground forces asserting that the city was still contested.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, speaking during a visit to Japan on May 21, initially appeared to confirm the loss of Bakhmut, but his press service later said his remarks had been misinterpreted and that he was, in fact, responding to a question about whether Russia controlled the city.
“I think no,” Zelenskiy said, speaking in English.
“But you have to understand that there is nothing. They destroyed everything,” he said, referring to Russian forces. “There are no buildings. It’s a pity. It’s a tragedy. But for today, Bakhmut is only in our hearts. There is nothing in this place.”
The claims come as Ukraine has reportedly made tangible battlefield advances in districts north and south of Bakhmut, which has been all but obliterated during a nearly 10-month push by Russian forces, with Wagner soldiers playing a major role.
It also comes as Ukraine preps for a widely anticipated counteroffensive that is expected to take place in one or more locations across the more than 1,000-kilometer front line, stretching from the Luhansk region in the northeast all the way to the mouth of the Dnieper River, near Kherson, in the southwest.
Russia has suffered major losses in the push to take Bakhmut, which has taken on an outsized significance for both Kyiv and Moscow. Since last summer, Russian forces have made no substantial battlefield gains in Ukraine, or notched any major victories. Ukraine, meanwhile, successfully pushed Russian forces out of the Kharkiv region and parts of Kherson last fall.
Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin posted a video to his Telegram channel on May 20 standing before what appeared to be the city’s destroyed railway station.
“Today, at noon, Bakhmut was completely captured,” he said. “We completely took the whole city, from house to house.”
The importance of the city’s control was underscored in part by how quickly Ukrainian officials pushed back on the claims by Prigozhin and the Defense Ministry.
“Fighting continues for every meter of territory,” Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskiy, commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, said in a statement on May 20.
Ukrainian troops continued to fight in “certain industrial and infrastructure facilities” in the southwest district of Bakhmut, amid “heavy fighting,” Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said in a statement issued around an hour after Prigozhin’s video appeared.
A confirmed Russian victory in Bakhmut would partly overshadow Zelenskiy’s visit to Japan, where he was meeting with Western leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) major industrial countries to try and bolster support.
Zelenskiy’s comments on Bakhmut came ahead of a meeting on May 21 with U.S. President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the summit.
Biden, meanwhile, announced a new package of military aid, which he said would include ammunition, artillery, and armored vehicles. The United States is by far the largest supplier of weaponry and equipment to Ukraine.
Earlier, Zelenskiy notched a boost of confidence when Western allies signaled a willingness to supply Kyiv with F-16 fighter jets. And he thanked British President Rishi Sunak for helping to form a coalition to supply the jets.
“I thanked him for the leadership in developing our capabilities in the sky,” Zelenskiy wrote on Telegram.
Zelenskiy also met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Charles Michel, the president of the European Council. And he met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, briefing him on the peace plan he has put forward that calls for the withdrawal of Russian forces before any negotiations can be held.
India is among the nations that have not joined the international condemnation of Russian aggression following Moscow’s February 2022 invasion.
“Russia’s brutal war of aggression represents a threat to the whole world in breach of fundamental norms, rules, and principles of the international community. We reaffirm our unwavering support for Ukraine for as long as it takes to bring a comprehensive, just and lasting peace,” the G7 leaders said in a communique issued late May 20.