Putin claims first battlefield victory in a year as Russian troops seize Bakhmut
Vladimir Putin has claimed his first battlefield victory in a year with the capture of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.
The Russian president congratulated Wagner troops as well as the regular Russian army for seizing the ruined city, which has been the site of the longest and bloodiest battle of the entire war.
Ukraine has denied that Bakhmut has fallen but Russian propagandists have started celebrating “one of the greatest battle victories in the 21st century”.
The Kremlin issued Mr Putin’s statement early on Sunday morning, half a day after Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin declared the capture of the city after 224 days of fighting.
Mr Putin said that he congratulated “Wagner assault detachments as well as all the servicemen of the units of the Russian Armed Forces who provided them with the necessary support and flank cover. All those who distinguished themselves will be given state awards”.
The careful reference to regular Russian soldiers appeared to have frustrated Mr Prigozhin, who has accused the Russian Ministry of Defence of deliberately undermining his mercenaries and said that Russian soldiers routed from their positions.
“During the taking of Artyomovsk, practically no one from the army helped us,” he said in a voice recording posted to his Telegram channel shortly after Mr Putin’s statement. Artyomovsk is the Soviet name for Bakhmut.
But at the G7 Summit in Hiroshima, Japan, Volodymyr Zelensky denied that Russian forces had captured Bakhmut, which he had previously pledged to defend at all costs.
“They are in Bakhmut but Bakhmut is not occupied by Russian forces,” he said, before comparing the devastation of the town to the destruction of Hiroshima after the US dropped atomic bombs on it in 1945.
“The photos of Hiroshima remind me of Bakhmut. There is absolutely nothing alive,” he said.
Mr Prighozin later said that Mr Zelensky was wrong and that his fighters had captured Bakhmut “to the last centimetre”.
The battle for Bakhmut has been referred to as “the meat grinder” with Russian commanders sending waves of infantry against well-defended Ukrainian positions.
Analysts have also compared it to the battle for Stalingrad, one of the bloodiest of World War II between Soviet and Nazi soldiers, and on Sunday, at a G7 press conference, Joe Biden said Russia had suffered “over 100,000 casualties” in the fighting.
Although Russian forces led by Wagner have steadily captured Bakhmut street by street over the past seven months, the fall of the entire city to the Kremlin would still represent a reversal for Ukraine and its allies who have been promoting battlefield successes there over the past 10 days.
Despite its relatively low strategic value and size, only around 70,000 people lived in Bakhmut before the start of the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion, and fighting along the frontline has focused on the town. It has become a major prize for Russia to capture and symbolically important for Ukraine to defend.
On Sunday, the Ukrainian army said although it only controls an “insignificant” part of the city, its forces are still advancing on the suburbs for a possible flanking manoeuvre.
“The importance of its defence does not lose its relevance,” the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Oleksandr Syrsky, said.
“Our forces have taken the city in a semi-encirclement, which gives us the opportunity to destroy the enemy,” Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
Analysts said Mr Prigozhin’s conflict with the ministry of defence may present Ukraine with an immediate opportunity to strike back because he has now promised to withdraw his mercenaries and hand over control of Bakhmut to the regular army.
“If Wagner actually leaves Bakhmut in four days, it may present Ukraine with an opportunity to retake it quickly before the Russians build substantial defensive fortifications there,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, a Russia analyst.
Even so, pro-Russian propagandists celebrated what they consider to be Russia’s first battlefield victory since Mariupol was declared conquered exactly a year earlier.
They reposted videos of Wagner mercenaries raising Russian flags over various destroyed buildings in Bakhmut at sunset and photographs of grinning fighters posing against a sign marking the entrance to the city.
“Bakhmut now goes down in the list of legendary places. This battle was won by those who were stronger in spirit,” Semen Pegov, a Russian military blogger, told his 1.2 million subscribers on his Wargonzo Telegram channel.
Russian military analysts hope that the Kremlin can now use Bakhmut as a springboard to capture the larger cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, which lie on one of the Donbas region’s main railway junctions. It needs to conquer both cities to achieve its stated aim of capturing the entire Donetsk region.
Western analysts disagreed and have said that the conquest of Bakhmut is a pyrrhic victory for the Kremlin that has been won at a huge cost and diverted vital military resources from other parts of the Russian frontline which has become increasingly stretched.
“Anyone claiming that Russia taking all of the city limits of Bakhmut is some kind of ‘victory’ has no idea of war,” said Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St Andrews.
Ukrainian has taunted Russian forces about the prospect of a major counteroffensive, although it has not said when or when this will be launched, and has said that the defence of Bakhmut was designed to exhaust and deplete Russia’s military reserves.
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