Wagner boss announces capture of Bakhmout, Ukraine says fighting still on

The boss of the Russian paramilitary group Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, on Saturday claimed to have captured the eastern Ukraine town of Bakhmut, the epicenter of fighting, where Kiev said it was still fighting, considering the situation “critical”.

If confirmed, the capture of Bakhmut would allow Moscow to secure victory after a series of humiliating reverses. Kiev says it has been preparing for months, adding that it will intervene even before a major retaliatory strike.

Mr Prigozhin’s announcement comes as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is at the G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, where he has been meeting to step up international pressure on Moscow.

“Today, at noon on May 20, 2023, Bakhmut was completely taken,” Mr. Prigozhin announced in a video broadcast by his press service on Telegram, where he stands with armed men in front of ruined buildings Is.

“The operation to take Bakhmout lasted 224 days (…) there was only Wagner” but no regular troops from the Russian army, said Mr. Prigozhin, who is in open conflict with the military hierarchy in Moscow.

Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Ganna Maliar claimed on a telegram that Ukrainian defenders still controlled “some industrial facilities and infrastructure” and apartment buildings, although “the situation is critical”.

Ukraine’s presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolić, for his part, assured on television that “Bakhmat, like all other regions of Ukraine, will be liberated”.

According to Mr. Prigozhin, Wagner would withdraw his men from the city from 25 May and leave the defense to the regular Russian army, ready after rotation and training for future operations from Moscow.

“By May 25, we will thoroughly search the city, create defensive positions and hand it over to the army to deal with. On our side, we will return to bases,” Prigozhin said.

Threatening employees

Prior to the Russian invasion both sides suffered heavy losses in Bakhmout, a town of about 70,000 people, which is now largely devastated by the fighting.

The Russian army made slow progress there, taking nearby places like Soledar to the north. They controlled Bakhmut by more than 90% in recent weeks, no longer fighting against the last pockets of Ukrainian resistance to the west within the city.

However, Ukraine this week claimed the seizure of more than twenty square kilometers from Russian forces north and south of the city, threatening Wagner’s herds, which are manned by regular Russian army troops.

Mr. Prigozhin accused Russian Army soldiers of deserting their positions near Bakhmut, while he claimed that the General Staff did not provide his men with enough ammunition, with the aim of weakening his group.

“We fought not only with the Ukrainian military in Bakhmut, but also with the Russian bureaucracy, which put a spoke in our wheels”, Mr Prigozhin launched on Saturday.

Ukrainian soldiers on an infantry fighting vehicle heading towards the Bakhmut frontline in eastern Ukraine (- Sergey Shestak)

Violently criticizing Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov once again, he estimated that five times as many people had died in Bakhmat “because of his whims”.

“He will answer for his actions,” said Wagner’s boss again.

Russia, which launched its troops to invade Ukraine on February 24, 2022, suffered severe setbacks on the front, in turn being forced to withdraw from the area around Kiev, then to the northeast of Kharkiv. from the region and south from the city of Kherson.

As with most of the fighting at Bakhmaut, the front was essentially settled during the winter.

Both camps now await a major retaliatory offensive announced by the Ukrainian authorities, backed by Western arms supplies.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently said that his military “needs more time” to prepare for the attack.

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