Zelensky says Bakhmut ‘not occupied’ after Russia claims control

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said that Russian forces are “not occupying” the besieged city of Bakhmut, casting doubt on Moscow’s insistence that the eastern Ukrainian city had fallen. Responding to a reporter’s question about the status of the city at the Group of Seven summit in Japan, Mr Zelensky compared the destruction wrought upon the city in eastern Ukraine to Hiroshima, which was devastated by an atomic bomb dropped by the US in 1945.

His comments followed a video posted on Telegram in which Wagner group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said the city came under complete Russian control at about midday on Saturday. He spoke surrounded by about a half-dozen fighters, with ruined buildings in the background and explosions heard in the distance.

Speaking from Hiroshima, Mr Zelensky said: “I clearly understand what is taking place in Bakhmut. I cannot share with you the tactical views of our military, of our warriors.

“But as of today we see that the country which is dozens times bigger than we are, cannot occupy us, cannot win in this war. Bakhmut is not occupied by the Russian Federation as of today.”

Mr Zelensky’s response in English to a question earlier at the summit about the status of Bakhmut suggested that he believed the city had fallen to Russian forces, and he offered solemn words about its fate.

When asked if the city was in Ukraine’s hands, he said: “I think no, but you have to — to understand that there is nothing, They’ve destroyed everything. There are no buildings. It’s a pity. It’s a tragedy.

“But, for today, Bakhmut is only in our hearts. There is nothing on this place, so — just ground and — and a lot of dead Russians,” he said.

Ukrainian defence and military officials said that fierce fighting was ongoing. Deputy defence minister Hanna Malyar even went so far as to say that Ukrainian troops “took the city in a semi-encirclement.”

“The enemy failed to surround Bakhmut, and they lost part of the dominant heights around the city,” Malyar said.

“That is, the advance of our troops in the suburbs along the flanks, which is still ongoing, greatly complicates the enemy’s presence in Bakhmut.”

It was only the latest flip-flopping of the situation in Bakhmut after eight months of intense fighting.

A Washington-based think tank said late on Saturday that the Russian capture of the last remaining ground in the city was “not tactically or operationally significant”.

The Institute for the Study of War said that taking control of these areas “does not grant Russian forces operationally significant terrain to continue conducting offensive operations,” nor to “to defend against possible Ukrainian counterattacks.”

Russian forces still seek to seize the remaining part of the Donetsk region still under Ukrainian control, including several heavily fortified areas.

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It isn’t clear which side has paid a higher price in the battle for Bakhmut. Both Russia and Ukraine have endured losses believed to be in the thousands, though neither has disclosed casualty numbers.

Analysts have said Bakhmut’s fall would be a blow to Ukraine and give some tactical advantages to Russia but wouldn’t prove decisive to the outcome of the war.

Bakhmut, located about 34 miles north of the Russian-held regional capital of Donetsk, had a prewar population of 80,000 and was an important industrial centre, surrounded by salt and gypsum mines.

The city, which was named Artyomovsk after a Bolshevik revolutionary when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, also was known for its sparkling wine production in underground caves.

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