Vladimir Putin has hailed his first major victory since the early days of the invasion of Ukraine, claiming Russian forces had captured the eastern city of Bakhmut despite Kyiv insisting the battle “was not over”.
Russia’s president said the paramilitary group Wagner had seized the Ukrainian city with help from Russia’s armed forces after a bloody, months-long battle that claimed more than 100,000 casualties and reduced the city to ruins.
“All who distinguished themselves will be put forward for state awards,” the Kremlin said in a statement released overnight on Sunday.
The battle of Bakhmut has been the longest and bloodiest fought in Ukraine since Putin launched his full-scale invasion in February 2022. Heavy fighting erupted there last May, but intensified in autumn and through winter.
It was not immediately clear whether Russia had captured the whole city. Ukraine’s military said that fighting continued on Bakhmut’s western outskirts and Kyiv’s counter-attacks on Russian forces continued on the northern and southern flanks, where they have gained some 10 square miles of territory over the past week.
Speaking at the G7 summit of advanced economies in Japan, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s president, disputed Russia’s claim that it had taken the whole city but suggested any victory would be Pyrrhic.
“You have to understand, there is nothing. They destroyed everything. There are no buildings,” Zelenskyy said. “It’s a pity, it’s a tragedy but for today Bakhmut is only in our hearts [ . . . ] There is just ground and a lot of dead Russians. But they came to us.”
The siege was led by caterer-turned-warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner’s founder, who has been embroiled in a bitter public spat over supplies with Russia’s general staff for most of this year. He said on Saturday that his group had captured Bakhmut without any significant support from the regular armed forces.
Prigozhin recorded his video in front of the Bakhmut railway station, more than two miles from the western front of the city he claimed to have seized. Artillery fire was still audible nearby.
Ukraine’s military denied Russia had taken control over the city. “Over the past 24 hours the enemy carried out unsuccessful attacks,” the Ukrainian military said on Sunday. “The battle for the city of Bakhmut is not over.”
Serhiy Cherevatyi, a military spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern command, told the Financial Times by phone on Saturday that while Russian forces control most of Bakhmut, heavy fighting was still under way on Chaikovskoho Street, a main road into the city, and a handful of blocks along its western and northwestern edge.
Wagner had not established full control of Bakhmut, he insisted, despite Prigozhin’s claims. Cherevatyi argued that over the course of the battle “the Ukrainian army has broken Wagner”.