Putin claims to capture Bakhmut, Zelensky denies Russian claims

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FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting of the Presidential Council for Interethnic Relations in Pyatigorsk, Russia May 19, 2023. Tatiana Barybina/Press Service of the Governor of the Stavropol Territory/Sputnik via REUTERS

MOSCOW (Reuters) Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Wagner mercenaries and the Russian military on the “liberation” of Bakhmut, a city in eastern Ukraine that Soviet-era Russia calls Artemovsk.

In a statement posted on the Kremlin’s website, Putin said that the longest and bloodiest battle of the 15-month war had ended with a Russian victory, and that all those who had performed well on Russia’s side will be awarded a national prize.

“The head of state congratulated Wagner’s assault force and all members of the Russian military units who provided the necessary support and flanking support for the completion of the Artemovsk (Bakhmut) liberation operation,” the statement said. He said.

“Everyone who makes a difference will receive a state award,” he said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Sunday that Russian forces did not occupy Bakhmut, casting doubt on Moscow’s claims that the city in eastern Ukraine has fallen. When asked by a reporter about the city’s status at Japan’s seven-major summit, President Zelensky said:

“To date Bahamut has not been occupied by the Russian Federation.”

“We will not abandon people to death,” President Zelensky said in Ukrainian through an interpreter. “People are treasures. I have a clear understanding of what is happening at Bahamut. I cannot give you the technical details of what is happening to our warriors.”

A series of comments by Ukrainian and Russian officials added to the confusion as the fog of war prevented them from ascertaining the situation on the ground in the longest fighting in the history of the invasion.

President Zelensky’s reply in English to a question about the situation in Bakhmut at the beginning of the summit indicated that he believed the city had fallen to Russian forces, and he offered solemn words about his fate.

Zelensky stood alongside US President Joe Biden at a press conference at the G7 summit in Japan. Biden announced $375 million in additional aid to Ukraine, including additional ammunition, artillery and vehicles.

Mr Zelensky later tweeted, “Thank you for the tremendous financial support from (USA) to (Ukraine).”

Russian forces are still trying to capture the rest of the Ukrainian-controlled Donetsk region, including some heavily fortified areas. It is not clear who paid the higher price in the Battle of Bahumut. Neither Russia nor Ukraine have released casualty figures, but they have suffered thousands of casualties.

President Zelensky emphasized the importance of defending Mr Bakhmut in an interview with The Associated Press in March, saying Bakhmut’s dismissal would boost international support for a deal that could force Russia into unacceptable compromises in Kyiv. 

Analysts said Bakhmut’s ousting would be a blow to Ukraine and would give Russia a tactical advantage, but would not decisive the outcome of the war.

Bakhmut, located about 55 kilometers (34 mi) north of the Russian-ruled regional capital Donetsk, with a pre-war population of 80,000, was a major industrial center surrounded by salt and gypsum mines. When Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union, the city, named Artemovsk after the Bolshevik revolutionaries, was also known for producing sparkling wine in underground caves. Its stately downtown area, now all smoldering wasteland, with wide tree-lined streets, lush parklands and stately late 19th-century mansions, is a popular tourist destination.

When separatist insurgency swept through eastern Ukraine in 2014, rebels quickly regained control of the city, weeks after Moscow illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, but ceded it months later. 

After failing to capture Kiev early in the February 2022 invasion and shifting Russia’s focus to Donbass, Moscow forces attempted to capture Bakhmut in August but were pushed back.

Fighting there subsided in the fall as Russia faced Ukrainian counterattacks in the east and south, but broke out again at full speed late last year. In January, the Russians captured the salt-mining town of Soledar, north of Bakmut, and laid siege to the outskirts of the town.

Heavy Russian artillery fire targeted the town and surrounding villages, while Moscow launched a three-pronged attack to crush resistance in what Ukrainians call the “Bakhmut Fortress.”

Wagner’s mercenaries led the Russian offensive. Prigozhin has sharply criticized Russian military leaders for trying to use the fighting in the city to expand his influence amid heightened tensions.