Following Saturday’s Wagner declaration of the capture of Bakhmut, President Vladimir Putin has for the first time since the war began congratulated the mercenary group by name for its battlefield victory, as The New York Times reports:
The state-run Channel 1 newscast cited statements by President Vladimir V. Putin and Russia’s Defense Ministry that gave Wagner partial credit for capturing the city. Channel 1 also featured footage of armed men described as Wagner fighters yelling, “Bakhmut is ours!”
The Russian flag as well as flags of PMC Wagner have been seen across the central part of the strategic city in the Donetsk region. “Vladimir Putin congratulated the assault units of Wagner as well as all servicemen of units of the Russian armed forces who provided them with the necessary support and flank cover, on the completion of the operation to liberate,” TASS wrote, also saying those who fought with distinction would receive military awards.
⚡️Wagner driving through the centre of Bakhmut today pic.twitter.com/YFf6iMkSdY
— War Monitor (@WarMonitors) May 21, 2023
But the Times also notes that Kiev is rejecting Russia’s full victory over the city, writing “Although Russia claims it has won control of Ukraine’s eastern city of Bakhmut after a grinding nine-month conflict in which tens of thousands of fighters have died, top Ukrainian military leaders say the battle is not over.”
While it’s widely being acknowledged that Ukrainian troops have left the city, Ukraine has said it will regroup and counter attack from the outskirts.
“The offensive potential of the enemy has been significantly reduced. Huge losses have been inflicted on the enemy. We have gained time for certain actions, which will be revealed later,” Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said in a Monday statement.
“The enemy failed to surround Bakhmut. They lost part of the heights around the city. The continuing advance of our troops in the suburbs greatly complicates the enemy’s presence,” Maliar said. “Our troops have taken the city in a semi-encirclement, which gives us the opportunity to destroy the enemy.”
The Ukrainian side is also claiming that a central strategy in Bakhmut was to exhaust Russian forces and ensure it sustained heavy casualties. “Despite the fact that we now control a small part of Bakhmut, the importance of its defense does not lose its relevance,” Ukraine’s ground commander Col.-Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi said. “This gives us the opportunity to enter the city in case of a change in the situation. And it will definitely happen.”
President Zelensky too and his top officials as of Sunday evening were still rejecting that Russia achieved completed victory over Bakhmut:
Responding to a reporter’s question about the status of the city at the Group of Seven summit in Japan, Zelenskyy said: “Bakhmut is not occupied by the Russian Federation as of today.”
“We are not throwing people (away) to die,” Zelenskyy 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.”
“The fight for the city of Bakhmut is continuing,” the Ukrainian military’s general staff said in a statement on Sunday evening.
Russian President Vladimir #Putin congratulated the #WagnerGroup & the Russian military on May 21 for capturing Bakhmut. Putin’s acknowledgment of #Wagner’s role in #Bakhmut is the first time that he has directly credited Wagner with a battlefield victory. https://t.co/lnGXMYg35V https://t.co/h5umfz4AGx
— ISW (@TheStudyofWar) May 22, 2023
However, after a grinding fight that lasted over 200 days, and with Ukrainian forces now clearly in retreat from the city (which even the D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War is acknowledging), it’s highly unlikely there will be any ‘attack from the outside’ on the utterly destroyed city, which wouldn’t make sense. Zelensky seemed to admit this in saying, “We are not throwing people away to die” – at the G7 in Japan.