• Mon. May 22nd, 2023

Russia-Ukraine war: President Zelensky denies Kremlin win in Bakhmut

As Russia announced victory over Bakhmut, one of the key cities in its Ukraine campaign, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky denied the claim, saying his country’s fighters were still battling Russian forces there.

Yet, hours, earlier, he had appeared to have confirmed Moscow’s conquest.

On Saturday, the Russian Wagner mercenary group claimed victory over the city in Ukraine’s east after nine bloody months of battle.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner group, posted a video online in which he said: “Bakhmut was taken in its entirety.” At the time, Kyiv strongly denied his claims but admitted the situation in the city was “critical”.

Confusion then continued throughout the day as Mr Zelensky appeared to accept then deny the reported Russian victory.

While attending the G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, the Ukrainian leader was asked about the Russian claim. He said: “You have to understand there is nothing. They destroyed everything,” adding that there are “a lot of dead Russians”.

He went on: “Our defenders … they did strong work, and of course we appreciate them for their great job.

“It’s a pity, it’s a tragedy, but for today Bakhmut is only in our hearts.”

Then, when asked if the city remained in Kyiv’s control, Mr Zelensky said, “I think no,” The Sun reported.

However the President’s press secretary Serhii Nykyforov was quick to deny the city had fallen to the Russians.

And in a later press conference, Mr Zelensky said that the city is “not occupied” – a message that his office also backed up when contacted by the BBC.

Has ‘fortress’ of Ukraine morale fallen?

Fighting in Bakhmut has left the city in ruins and forced most of its 70,000 residents to flee. Hardly a building remains standing in the besieged city, which has become a symbol of strength for the Ukrainian people.

Mr Zelensky previously has called Bakhmut “a fortress” of Ukrainian morale.

In the video posted by the Wagner group, Prigozhin claimed: “We completely took the whole city, from house to house.”

He added that his forces would withdraw from the city on May 25 for rest and retraining, handing over control to the regular Russian army.

And referring to the Ukraine President’s meeting with other world leaders at the G7, Prigozhin added: “Today when you see Biden, kiss him on the top of his head. Say hi to him from me.”

The claim by Prigozhin was echoed by the Kremlin’s defence ministry, which announced the region had been “liberated”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin praised his troops for allegedly capturing the city, saying those who had fought in Bakhmut had distinguished themselves and would be given awards, Russian state media reported.

Ukraine says it still controls city

After the President’s initial comments at the G7 Summit, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister Hanna Maliar claimed that Ukrainian forces were still in control of part of the city and were continuing their advances along Bakhmut’s outskirts.

“Our forces have taken the city in a semi-encirclement, which gives us the opportunity to destroy the enemy,” she wrote on Telegram.

“Therefore, the enemy has to defend himself in the part of the city he controls.”

The Russian claim comes a week after Ukraine described fleeing Russian soldiers in Bakhmut as “rats climbing into a mousetrap” after Ukrainian forces launched a counter-attack against the invaders.

Kyiv’s commander of land forces, General Oleksandr Syrskyi, said in a video posted online: “Wagner troops climbed into Bakhmut like rats into a mousetrap”.

He told Ukrainian troops: “The enemy has more resources, but we are destroying his plans”.

Kyiv described its tactic in the “meat grinder” battle as drawing the Russian troops in so as to weaken their frontline defences elsewhere.

If the city has, however, fallen into Russian hands, it would be the first major victory by the Russians in 10 months as well as a severe blow to Ukraine morale.

Importance of key city

Taking Bakhmut would give the Russians a road to the more populous cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, which, with a railway depot, has greater strategic importance, The Sunday Times reported.

Mr Zelensky himself has spoken previously about how important the city is. In March the President said that Kyiv could not allow Bakhmut to fall, explaining that a Russian win there would enable Putin to “sell this victory to the West, to his society, to China, to Iran”.

“If he will feel some blood – smell that we are weak – he will push, push, push,” he said.

However if Russia’s claims are true, a victory in Bakhmut may be short-lived. In the empty city, it’s possible Ukrainian troops could effectively encircle the Russians, sweeping around them to retake the city.

In fact, at the G7 Summit, Mr Zelensky pointed out the similarities between the city he was in and the city under attack in his own country.

“The photos of Hiroshima remind me of Bakhmut. There is absolutely nothing alive, all the buildings are destroyed. Absolute total destruction. There is nothing, there are no people.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.