Ukraine’s president has insisted that the besieged city of Bakhmut remains in Ukrainian possession, despite claims Russia has taken it over.
After admitting the fall of the battle-ravaged city early on Sunday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy later told a G7 news conference in Japan that Bakhmut “is not occupied by Russia.”
“There are not two or three interpretations of those words,” he said, adding that he would not share precise details.
The denials come after Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary group, claimed on Saturday that his troops had seized the last remaining Ukrainian positions in the western suburbs and posted a photo of himself waving a Russian flag among its ruins.
The mercenary leader stated that his troops had taken the last multi-story apartment building in the southwest of Bakhmut.
However, he also declared that his force, which has suffered massive losses with a potential of up to 20,000 dead, would withdraw from the city on Thursday to be replaced by regular Russian troops.
At first, it seemed that Ukraine had recognized that it had lost the city for which it had been fighting for more than a year.
A prominent Ukrainian military blogger, WarMonitor, who tweeted “Bakhmut Holds” throughout the siege, tweeted late on Saturday: “Russian forces have captured Bajmut.”
But he added that Ukrainian forces had seized more high ground overlooking the city and that the occupying forces were vulnerable to attack. “The surrounding hills create a shooting range,” wrote the blogger, who has 500,000 followers.
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar later stated on Telegram that Russia had failed to take the city and that they had been “semi-locked down.”
“The advance of our troops in the suburbs on the flanks, which is still going on, makes it very difficult for the enemy to be in Bakhmut,” he said while acknowledging that the situation was “critical.”
Military analysts believe the Ukrainians may have lured the Russians into the depths of Bakhmut only to have them surrounded, similar to the Soviets’ encirclement of German troops at Stalingrad in 1943.
Even if Russia has captured the battered city, the pyrrhic victory could soon be forgotten if Ukraine succeeds in advancing the rest of the 1,000km front line.
“Whether Ukraine can hold out for another week or 10 days will be irrelevant as [Bajmut] will be lost to the general offensive when it starts,” said Professor Michael Clarke, a military commentator.
Given their vulnerability, there are also questions about whether Wagner’s exhausted troops will be able to be replaced by Russian soldiers before Thursday.
The Institute for the Study of War said: “Wagner’s forces are unlikely to successfully carry out a controlled withdrawal from Bakhmut while in contact with Ukrainian forces within five days without disrupting Russian [Ministry] efforts of Defense] to prepare the planned Ukrainian counter-offensive’.
Speaking at the end of the G7 meeting in Hiroshima, President Zelenskyy said that while the razed city was not tactically crucial, it had taken on symbolic importance after the bloodshed and destruction.
He added that the World War II images of Hiroshima after the first atomic bomb was dropped in 1945 reminded him of today’s Bakhmut.