Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said Russian forces are not occupying Bakhmut, casting doubt on Moscow’s claims that the eastern Ukrainian city has fallen.
Responding to a reporter’s question about the status of the city at the Group of Seven meeting in Hiroshima, Japan, Mr Zelensky said: “Bakhmut is not occupied by the Russian Federation as of today.”
“We are not throwing people (away) to die,” Mr Zelensky 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.”
Oleksandr Syrskyi, a spokesman for the military’s eastern command, said Ukrainian forces control the outskirts of the city, and “defence forces continue offensive actions on the flanks near Bakhmut”.
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.
Mr Zelensky’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, Mr Zelensky 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.
Mr Zelensky’s press secretary later walked back those previous comments.
Ukrainian defence and military officials also said that fierce fighting was ongoing.
Deputy defence minister 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,” Ms Malyar said.
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 south-western part of the city. Heavy fighting is under way,” 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 Defence Ministry also said that Wagner and military units “completed the liberation” of Bakhmut.
At the G7 in Japan, Mr Zelensky stood side by side with US President Joe Biden during a news conference.
Mr Biden announced 375 million dollars (£301 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 US),” Mr Zelensky tweeted later.
The new pledge came after the US agreed to allow training on American-made F-16 fighter jets, laying the groundwork for their eventual transfer to Ukraine.
Mr Biden said on Sunday that Mr Zelensky had given the US a “flat assurance” that Ukraine would not 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 on 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 “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 on Saturday.
He spoke surrounded by about half a dozen fighters, with ruined buildings in the background and explosions heard in the distance.
It is not 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.
Mr Zelensky 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 would not prove decisive to the outcome of the war.
Bakhmut, located about 55 kilometres (34 miles) north of the Russian-held regional capital of Donetsk, had a pre-war population of 80,000 and was an important industrial centre, surrounded by salt and gypsum mines.
The city, which was named Artyomovsk after a Bolshevik revolutionary when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, was also known for its sparkling wine production in underground caves.
Its broad tree-lined avenues, lush parks and stately city centre with imposing late 19th-century mansions – all now reduced to a smouldering wasteland – made it a popular tourist destination.
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.
“We fought not only with the Ukrainian armed forces in Bakhmut. We fought the Russian bureaucracy, which threw sand in the wheels,” Mr 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 defence minister Sergei Shoigu has said that seizing the city would allow Russia to press its offensive further into the Donetsk region, one of the four Ukrainian provinces that Moscow illegally annexed in September.