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Zelenskyy denies Moscow's claims that Russian forces are occupying Bakhmut

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, second right, talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, third left, during their bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G7 Summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on Sunday.
Laily Rachev
/
AP
Indonesian President Joko Widodo, second right, talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, third left, during their bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G7 Summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on Sunday.

Updated May 21, 2023 at 8:13 AM ET

HIROSHIMA, Japan — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Sunday that Russian forces weren't occupying 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, Zelenskyy said: "Bakhmut is not occupied by the Russian Federation as of today."

"We are not throwing people (away) to die," Zelenskyy said in Ukrainian through an interpreter. "People are the treasure. I clearly understand what is happening in Bakhmut. I cannot share with you the technical details of what is happening with our warriors."

The fog of war made it impossible to confirm the situation on the ground in the invasion's longest battle, and a series of comments from Ukrainian and Russian officials added confusion to the matter.

Zelenskyy'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, Zelenskyy 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 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.

Zelenskyy's press secretary later walked back those previous comments.

Ukrainian defense and military officials said that fierce fighting was ongoing. Deputy Defense Minsiter 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."

And the spokesman for Ukraine's Eastern Group of Forces, Serhii Cherevaty, said that the Ukrainian military is managing to hold positions in the vicinity of Bakhmut.

"The president correctly said that the city has, in fact, been razed to the ground. The enemy is being destroyed every day by massive artillery and aviation strikes, and our units report that the situation is extremely difficult.

"Our military keep fortifications and several premises in the southwestern part of the city. Heavy fighting is underway," he said.

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

Only hours earlier, Russian state new agencies reported that President Vladimir Putin congratulated "Wagner assault detachments, as well as all servicemen of the Russian Armed Forces units, who provided them with the necessary support and flank protection, on the completion of the operation to liberate Artyomovsk," which is Bakhmut's Soviet-era name.

Russia's Defense Ministry also said that Wagner and military units "completed the liberation" of Bakhmut.

At the G-7 in Japan, Zelenskyy stood side by side with U.S. President Joe Biden during a news conference. Biden announced $375 million more in aid for Ukraine, which included more ammunition, artillery and vehicles.

"I thanked him for the significant financial assistance to (Ukraine) from (the U.S.)," Zelenskyy tweeted later.

The new pledge came after the U.S. agreed to allow training on American-made F-16 fighter jets, laying the groundwork for their eventual transfer to Ukraine. Biden said Sunday that Zelenskyy had given the U.S. a "flat assurance" that Ukraine wouldn't use the F-16s jets to attack Russian territory.

Many analysts say that even if Russia was victorious in Bakhmut, it was unlikely to turn the tide in the war.

The Russian capture of the last remaining ground in Bakhmut is "not tactically or operationally significant," a Washington-based think tank said late Saturday. 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."

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

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

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.

Zelenskyy underlined the importance of defending Bakhmut in an interview with The Associated Press in March, saying its fall could allow Russia to rally international support for a deal that might require Kyiv to make unacceptable compromises.

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 55 kilometers (34 miles) north of the Russian-held regional capital of Donetsk, had a prewar population of 80,000 and was an important industrial center, 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. Its broad tree-lined avenues, lush parks and stately downtown with imposing late 19th-century mansions — all now reduced to a smoldering wasteland — made it a popular tourist destination.

When a separatist rebellion engulfed eastern Ukraine in 2014 weeks after Moscow's illegal annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, the rebels quickly won control of the city, only to lose it a few months later.

After Russia switched its focus to the Donbas following a botched attempt to seize Kyiv early in the February 2022 invasion, Moscow's troops tried to take Bakhmut in August but were pushed back.

The fighting there abated in autumn as Russia was confronted with Ukrainian counteroffensives in the east and the south, but it resumed at full pace late last year. In January, Russia captured the salt-mining town of Soledar, just north of Bakhmut, and closed in on the city's suburbs.

Intense Russian shelling targeted the city and nearby villages as Moscow waged a three-sided assault to try to finish off the resistance in what Ukrainians called "fortress Bakhmut."

Mercenaries from Wagner spearheaded the Russian offensive. Prigozhin tried to use the battle for the city to expand his clout amid the tensions with the top Russian military leaders whom he harshly criticized.

"We fought not only with the Ukrainian armed forces in Bakhmut. We fought the Russian bureaucracy, which threw sand in the wheels," Prigozhin said in the video on Saturday.

The relentless Russian artillery bombardment left few buildings intact amid ferocious house-to-house battles. Wagner fighters "marched on the bodies of their own soldiers" according to Ukrainian officials. Both sides have spent ammunition at a rate unseen in any armed conflict for decades, firing thousands of rounds a day.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has said that seizing the city would allow Russia to press its offensive farther into the Donetsk region, one of the four Ukrainian provinces that Moscow illegally annexed in September.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press