May 21, 2023 - World

Ukraine's Zelensky denies that Russian forces are occupying Bakhmut

A school and apartment buildings in Bakhmut. Satellite image via Maxar

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday rejected Russia's claim that it had fully captured the eastern Ukrainian city of Bahkmut.

Why it matters: Western officials and others have said Bakhmut offers little strategic importance, but the city — and who controls it — has taken on symbolic meaning after nearly a year of fighting and heavy losses on both sides. The city has also been largely destroyed.

Driving the news: Bakhmut has seen intense fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian fighters, including members of the brutal Wagner mercenary group, since the spring of 2022.

  • The city is located in Ukraine’s Donetsk province — one of four regions Russia annexed in a move widely condemned as illegal.
  • Russia's Foreign Ministry on Saturday claimed in a tweet that "as a result of offensive actions by the Wagner assault units, supported by" Russian troops, "the liberation" of the city had been "completed."
  • The leader of the Wagner group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, had said several hours earlier that his mercenaries had completely taken the city.
  • But Ukrainian officials, including Zelensky, pushed back on those claims, saying Ukrainian troops were still in control of some areas in Bahkmut, though they did acknowledge the situation in the city was "critical."

What they're saying: "Bakhmut is not occupied by the Russian Federation as of today," Zelensky told reporters at the G7 summit in Japan on Sunday.

  • Zelensky was clarifying comments he made earlier Sunday when he appeared to confirm Bahkmut had fallen.
  • Zelensky also acknowledged that the city has largely been leveled. "They’ve destroyed everything. There are no buildings. It’s a pity. It’s [a] tragedy," Zelensky said.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin said on Sunday that all "military personnel who distinguished themselves in the operation [in Bahkmut] will be recommended for state decorations."

  • It added that Russian President Vladimir Putin "congratulated the Wagner assault units as well as all service personnel of the Russian Federation Armed Forces who had rendered them the required support and protected the flanks, on the completion of the operation to liberate" the city.
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