MOSCOW (AP) — The Russian Defense Ministry said Sunday morning that forces from Wagner’s private army, with the support of Russian troops, seized the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut.
The ministry’s statement on the Telegram channel came about eight hours after a similar claim by Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin. Ukrainian authorities at the time said the fighting for Bakhmut continued.
The eight-month battle for the eastern Ukrainian town is the longest and probably the bloodiest in Ukraine’s conflict.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s previous story follows below.
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian private army chief Wagner claimed on Saturday that his forces had taken control of the town of Bakhmut after the longest and fiercest battle of the Russo-Ukrainian war, but Ukrainian defense officials have denied it.
In a video posted on Telegram, Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said the city had come under full Russian control around noon on Saturday. He spoke flanked by about half a dozen fighters, with crumbling buildings in the background and explosions heard in the distance.
However, after the video was released, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said heavy fighting continued.
“The situation is critical,” she said. “From now on, our defenders control certain industrial and infrastructure facilities in this area.”
Serhiy Cherevatyi, spokesman for Ukraine’s Eastern Command, told The Associated Press that Prigozhin’s claim “is not true. Our units are fighting in Bakhmut. In a statement on Facebook, the Ukrainian General Staff said that “the fierce battles for the city of Bakhmut do not stop”.
Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said “this is not the first time that Prigozhin has said ‘we have taken everything and we are dominating'”. He also suggested that the Wagner chief’s statement was intended to distract from Zelenskyy’s recent highly visible trips abroad, including to the Group of Seven summit in Japan on Saturday.
Fighting has been raging in and around Bakhmut for more than eight months.
While Russian forces have taken control of Bakhmut, they will still face the massive task of seizing the remaining part of the Donetsk region still under Ukrainian control, including several heavily fortified areas.
It is unclear which side paid the highest price in the battle for Bakhmut. Russia and Ukraine both suffered casualties estimated in the thousands, although neither disclosed the number of casualties.
Zelenskyy stressed the importance of defending Bakhmut in an interview with The Associated Press in March, saying his downfall could allow Russia to rally international support for a deal that could force Kiev into unacceptable compromises.
Analysts said Bakhmut’s fall would be a blow to Ukraine and give Russia tactical advantages, but would not be decisive for the outcome of the war.
Russian forces still face the daunting task of seizing the rest of the Donetsk region under Ukrainian control, including several heavily fortified areas. The provinces of Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk make up Donbass, Ukraine’s industrial heartland where a separatist uprising began in 2014 and which Moscow illegally annexed in September.
Bakhmut, located about 55 kilometers (34 miles) north of the Russian-controlled regional capital of Donetsk, had a pre-war population of 80,000 and was an important industrial center, 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 producing sparkling wine in underground caves. Its wide, tree-lined avenues, lush parks, and stately downtown with its imposing late-19th-century mansions — all now reduced to a smoking wasteland — have made it a popular tourist destination.
When a separatist rebellion engulfed eastern Ukraine in 2014 weeks after Moscow illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, the rebels quickly took control of the city, only to lose it months later.
After Russia turned to Donbass following a failed attempt to seize Kiev at the start of the February 2022 invasion, troops from Moscow attempted to take Bakhmut in August but were repelled .
Fighting there waned in the fall as Russia faced Ukrainian counteroffensives in the east and south, but it resumed in full swing late last year. In January, Russia captured the mining town of Soledar, just north of Bakhmut, and closed in on the town’s outskirts.
Intense Russian shelling targeted the town and nearby villages as Moscow led a three-way assault in an attempt to finish off the resistance in what Ukrainians called the “Bakhmut Fortress”.
Wagner’s mercenaries spearheaded the Russian offensive. Prigozhin attempted to use the battle for the city to expand his influence amid tensions with key Russian military leaders whom he harshly criticized.
“We fought not only with the Ukrainian Armed Forces in Bakhmut. We fought the Russian bureaucracy, which threw sand in the wheels,” Prigozhin said in the video on Saturday.
Relentless Russian artillery bombardment left few buildings intact amid fierce house-to-house battles. Wagner’s fighters “stepped on the bodies of their own soldiers”, according to Ukrainian officials. Both sides have expended ammunition at a rate not seen in any armed conflict for decades, firing thousands of rounds a day.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said taking the city would allow Russia to push further its offensive in the Donetsk region, one of four Ukrainian provinces that Moscow illegally annexed in September.
This story has been updated to correct Podolyak’s position as presidential adviser, not chief of staff.