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Bakhmut: Zelenskiy denies Russian victory claims in contested city – video

Ukraine: Zelenskiy denies Russian claims to have taken Bakhmut

‘Bakhmut is only in our hearts. There is nothing ... just ruins and dead Russians,’ says Ukraine’s president

Ukraine has rejected Russian claims to have captured Bakhmut, insisting its forces still have a foothold in the Donbas city and are steadily encircling the Russian mercenaries holding the ruined town centre.

It was impossible to verify the conflicting claims in a battle of attrition for a devastated city, which has assumed symbolic importance as a measure of which side has the resilience to prevail in the war overall, as Kyiv prepares to unleash a broader counteroffensive against Putin’s occupation forces.

“Bakhmut is not occupied by Russian Federation as of today,” Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, told a press conference at the G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan. He said that images of Hiroshima after it was flattened by the atom bomb dropped by the US in 1945, reminded him of Bakhmut.

But he did concede little of the city remained intact. “You have to understand that there is nothing. They destroyed everything. For today, Bakhmut is only in our hearts. There is nothing in this place … just ruins and a lot of dead Russians,” Zelenskiy said.

Zelenskiy was speaking after the head of the Wagner mercenary organisation, Yevgeny Prigozhin, posed amid the wreckage with some of his fighters on midday on Saturday, and claimed they controlled the whole of Bakhmut. Later, Vladimir Putin congratulated Wagner and Russian regular forces on “the completion of the operation to liberate Artyomovsk [the city’s Soviet-era name]”.

Nevertheless, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, Hanna Maliar, said on the Telegram messaging app that Ukrainian forces were still “holding the defence” in the city’s “airplane area” referring to the destroyed MiG-17 monument at Bakhmut’s western entrance close to a multistorey block Wagner claimed had been the last building held by Ukrainian forces, as well as some infrastructure sites, a residential area and some high ground overlooking the centre.

Furthermore, Maliar said: “Our forces have taken the city in a semi-encirclement, which gives us the opportunity to destroy the enemy … the enemy has to defend himself in the part of the city he controls.”

Gen Oleksandr Syrskyi, the commander of Ukrainian ground forces, said in a Telegram post that his troops were advancing through Bakhmut’s suburbs and were approaching a “tactical encirclement” of the city.

Ukraine map

Bakhmut is about 34 miles north of the Russian-held regional capital of Donetsk. Before the war it had a population of 70,000 and was an important industrial centre, surrounded by salt and gypsum mines. It is of questionable strategic importance in the struggle for the Donbas, other than a symbolic prize.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskiy, suggested Russian claims of victory were aimed at drawing attention away from Zelenskiy’s recent high-profile trips overseas, including to the G7 summit. “This is not the first time Prigozhin has said ‘we seized everything and are dominating’.”

While Wagner claimed to have occupied every building in the city itself, heavy fighting appeared to be continuing just beyond the outskirts of the city around Ivanivske, Stupochky and Bila Hora, suggesting the wider Bakhmut sector was still being heavily contested.

Both Russia and Ukraine have endured losses believed to be in the thousands, though neither has disclosed casualty numbers. Speaking in Japan, Joe Biden put Russian casualties at 100,000 from the battle for Bakhmut alone.

Zelenskiy left the G7 summit in Hiroshima with some significant diplomatic successes. His calls for international solidarity in defence of his country were the focal point of the meeting of a group of major powers that once included Russia. He was able to pin down US support for a programme to train Ukrainian pilots to fly F16 fighter jets and pledges of more weaponry and ammunition.

Biden insisting that Ukraine’s backers “will not waver.”

“Putin will not break our resolve as he thought he could,” the US president told reporters after meeting with Zelenskiy.

After Moscow failed in its efforts to capture Kyiv and install its own puppet regime at the beginning of the war in 2022, Russia threw most of its efforts into capturing a series of important cities in the Donbas, including Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, with Bakhmut seen as a stepping stone to that wider ambition.

But the Russian advance became bogged down around Bakhmut as the small city took on an outsized importance for the Kremlin despite its minor strategic importance.

The claimed Russian victory was dismissed by analysts as largely insignificant. In its daily update on Saturday, the Institute for the Study of War said the claimed capture of the last urban areas “does not grant Russian forces operationally significant terrain to continue conducting offensive operations or any particularly strong position from which to defend against possible Ukrainian counterattacks”.

Images posted online on Saturday evening appeared to show the city, which has been reduced to rubble in the longest battle of the conflict in Ukraine, being hit by dozens of incendiary munitions.

Whether or not they managed to hold Bakhmut, Russian forces will still face the massive task of seizing the part of the Donetsk region that remains under Ukrainian control, including several heavily fortified areas and less favourable terrain that is more advantageous to defenders.

Beyond Bakhmut, Kyiv has had months to dig miles of new trenches in the open countryside while also heavily fortifying positions in the nearby cities with the higher ground to the west of Bakhmut occupied by Ukrainian artillery positions.

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