The Wagner Group of mercenaries’ contested claim of victory in the embattled Ukrainian city of Bakhmut is “purely symbolic” even if it is a true account of captured territory, according to a new assessment.
On Saturday, the head of the paramilitary outfit, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said that the devastated Donetsk city was “fully taken” by Russian forces. In a statement, the Russian Defense Ministry said that the “offensive actions” of Wagner fighters and Moscow’s troops had “completed” the capture of the city. The ministry reiterated this statement on Sunday.
“We have completely taken the whole city, from house to house,” Prigozhin said, laying out a timeline for Wagner forces to withdraw from the settlement. Ukraine said on Sunday that Russia did not control the entirety of the city and that its defensive operations were continuing.
But the remaining blocks of the eastern part of the city that Prigozhin said Wagner now controlled “are not tactically or operationally significant,” the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) think tank said on Saturday. Capturing these areas does not help Russian forces with offensive operations, the think tank added, nor offer “any particularly strong position from which to defend against possible Ukrainian counterattacks.”
The think tank had not seen geolocated footage supporting the Wagner statements, as of midday Eastern Time on Saturday, the ISW added.
The city is not deemed tactically crucial by analysts, but months of high-profile and bitter fighting have kept it in the spotlight. Both Kyiv and Moscow are believed to have sustained heavy casualties in battles for the city.
Some confusion arose over the fate of Bakhmut on Sunday after reporting of comments made by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appeared to suggest Bakhmut had fallen.
Responding to a media question about Russia’s statements on Bakhmut, Zelensky said Moscow had “destroyed everything,” adding there “are no buildings.”
Zelensky later told a media briefing that Bakhmut “is not occupied by Russia,” according to the BBC. A presidential press secretary for Zelensky, Sergii Nykyforov, had posted on social media on Sunday that the comments made by the Ukrainian leader during the briefing with Biden were a denial of Russia’s claims.
The Ukrainian General Staff of the Armed Forces also said on Sunday that “fighting for the city of Bakhmut continues.”
“We continue the defense,” Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, said in a statement posted to Telegram. “The situation is difficult, but under control.”
“The enemy failed to surround Bakhmut,” Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar added on Sunday. “The advance of our troops in the suburbs along the flanks, which is still ongoing, makes it very difficult for the enemy to stay in Bakhmut,” she added.
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