Russia claims it has taken full control of Bakhmut, the epicenter of the war in eastern Ukraine over the past several months, in what would be Moscow’s first major victory since last summer.
However, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Ukrainian commanders disputed the declaration, saying fighting still continues for the devastated city, which has symbolized Kyiv’s fierce resistance to Moscow’s unprovoked invasion.
Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a congratulatory statement to his forces on May 20 after Russia’s Defense Ministry and the head of the Wagner mercenary group – which has been at the forefront of Moscow’s siege of Bakhmut – announced they had taken the city.
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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.
Zelenskiy, meeting with the leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized nations in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21 to discuss additional military aid, responded “no” when asked by reporters whether Russia controlled the city. Yet he seemed to downplay the significance of an eventual loss.
“But you have to understand that there is nothing [left of the city]. They destroyed everything,” he said, referring to Russian forces. “There are no buildings. It’s a pity. It’s a tragedy.”
Bakhmut today only remains a place “in our hearts,” he said, comparing its widespread destruction to that of Hiroshima, which was nearly obliterated by an atomic bomb during World War II.
The conflicting reports about Bakhmut’s control came as Ukraine reportedly made tangible battlefield advances in districts north and south of the contested city that commanders bet will enable them to eventually encircle the Russian troops in Bakhmut.
They also came as Ukraine gears up 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, which stretches from the Luhansk region in the northeast all the way to the mouth of the Dnieper River, near Kherson, in the southwest.
Some Western military officials have questioned Ukraine’s staunch defense of Bakhmut, saying its strategic value is overstated. The city, which had a prewar population of 70,000, is a transport hub with railway and road links to other parts of eastern Ukraine.
Yet others say Ukraine has successfully worn down Russian forces in Bakhmut, giving Kyiv time to prepare tens of thousands of fresh troops for a counteroffensive.
U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters in Hiroshima on May 21 that Russia has suffered over 100,000 casualties in Bakhmut, including dead and injured, a number analysts called “catastrophic.”
Bakhmut has become highly symbolic for both Kyiv and Moscow during the 10-month Russian siege.
During his December address from the podium of the U.S. Capitol to members of Congress, Zelenskiy compared the fighting in Bakhmut to the 1777 Battle of Saratoga, a decisive moment in the U.S. war for independence.
Zelenskiy told Congress that “Bakhmut holds,” a phrase which has since become a rallying cry for Ukraine.
Russia sought to take Bakhmut ahead of the May 9 Victory Day, one of the most important holidays in the country and which celebrates the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.
Amid the recent advances by Ukraine in the districts north and south of the city, Russia poured hundreds of more troops into Bakhmut in recent days.
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.”
Prigozhin has exaggerated his group’s military advances in the past.
Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said in a statement released about an hour later that Ukrainian troops continue to fight in “certain industrial and infrastructure facilities” in the southwest district of Bakhmut, amid “heavy fighting.”
Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskiy, commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, on May 21 admited that Ukrainian forces controlled only a small part of Bakhmut, but suggested that his troops would still be able to reenter the city in the future.
“Despite the fact that we now control [only] a small part of Bakhmut, the importance of its defense is still relevant,” he said in a post to Telegram. “It gives us the opportunity to enter the city in case the situation changes. And this will definitely happen.”
“We continue to advance along the flanks in the suburb of Bakhmut and are actually approaching the capture of the city in a tactical situation,” he said.
A confirmed Russian victory in Bakhmut would have partly overshadowed Zelenskiy’s visit to Japan, where he received assurances of more support.
Biden announced a new $375 million package of military aid, which includes 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.