Russia’s Wagner Group claims to have captured Bakhmut, but Ukraine says it still controls part of it
The head of the Russian private military group Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, claimed on Saturday that his forces have taken complete control of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut after months of brutal fighting.
“The operation to capture Bakhmut lasted 224 days,” he said in a video posted to Telegram, trying to claim a final victory in the city.
CNN could not independently verify Prigozhin’s claim, but an initial response from the Ukrainian side disputed it.
Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar admitted in a Telegram post less than an hour after the Russian mercenary’s claim was published that the situation in Bakhmut was “critical” but said Ukrainian troops were still “holding the defense” in a district on Bakhmut’s westernmost edge.
“Currently, our defenders control certain industrial and infrastructure facilities in the area and the private sector,” she said.
While Russian forces have continued their slow street-by-street advance into the city itself for many months, over the past two weeks Ukrainian forces have managed to recapture small pockets of territory held by Russian troops in the northwest and southwest of the city. .
Granted, for Russia, Bakhmut’s capture would mark the country’s first gain in months, but the city’s symbolism always outweighed its strategic importance.
Russian forces, supported by members of the Wagner mercenary group, have taken heavy casualties in trying to capture the city.
There are no official casualty figures, but earlier this year a Nato source told CNN they estimated that for every Ukrainian soldier killed defending Bakhmut, Russia lost five.
The battle has also highlighted an extraordinary rift among Russian forces, with Prigozhin at one point accusing a Russian brigade of abandoning its position in the city and repeatedly harassing the Ministry of Defense for lack of ammunition.
During the early part of 2023, the routes into Bakhmut had gradually come under the control of Russian forces, and the battle for the city turned into an inch-by-inch attrition, with Ukrainian forces repulsing dozens of attacks each day.
Instead of driving directly toward the city center, Wagner’s troops sought to encircle the city in a wide arc from the north.
In January, they claimed the nearby town of Soledar and later captured a number of villages and hamlets north of Bakhmut, making Ukraine’s defense of the town increasingly dangerous.
But even as Moscow’s troops closed in and most residents fled through dangerous evacuation corridors, a small group of Ukrainian civilians remained in the ruined city. Before the war, about 70,000 people lived in Bakhmut. In March, it was less than 4,000.
The battle has been compared to the kind of fighting seen in the First World War. Pictures from the area showed soldiers wading through mud with trees destroyed by artillery fire.