Confusion as Ukraine's Zelenskyy appears to confirm loss of Bakhmut

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy walked back comments Sunday that appeared to confirm earlier Russian claims that its forces captured the city of Bakhmut following months of bloody and intense fighting.

"I think not," Ukraine's leader said after being asked by a reporter whether Ukraine still controlled the eastern city that has been under siege for eight months. Zelenskyy made the comments while speaking alongside President Joe Biden during an appearance on the final day of the Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima, Japan.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (L) and US President Joe Biden take part in a bilateral meeting during the G7 Leaders' Summit in Hiroshima on May 21, 2023. (Photo by Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP)

“For today, Bakhmut is only in our hearts. There is nothing in this place,” Zelenskyy said.

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He said the fight had left nothing in Bakhmut but a lot of “dead Russians.”

However, Zelenskyy's office later denied that Russia captured the city. It said his comments were a reference to the complete destruction of Bakhmut. It is so far the longest and likely the bloodiest battle of the war. An estimated 20,000-30,000 Russian troops have died fighting there and Ukraine has also suffered heavy losses.

February 16, 2023: A Ukrainian serviceman of the State Border Guard Service fires a mortar toward the Russian position in Bakhmut as the head of Russia's mercenary outfit Wagner said it could take months to capture the embattled Ukraine city and slammed Moscow's "monstrous bureaucracy" for slowing military gains. - Russia has been trying to encircle the battered industrial city and wrest it ahead of Feb. 24, the first anniversary of what it terms its "special military operation" in Ukraine.

Zelenskyy's comments in Japan came just hours after Russia's Defense Ministry and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Moscow-backed Wagner private army, claimed Russian forces had fully seized Bakhmut.

Bakhmut has become a symbol of Ukraine's grinding resistance to near-constant assaults by Russia's military along a 600-mile wending frontline. Some military analysts say the city is of little direct strategic value to Ukraine, but its capture by Russia would amount to a major psychological blow to Ukraine, and a boost for Moscow.

"If the Ukrainians decide to reposition (to the west of Bakhmut) I would not view that as an operational or strategic setback," U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said, speaking to reporters in March. Austin said a Ukrainian withdrawal from Bakhmut would not mean Russia had "changed the tide of this fight."

Still, that same month Zelenskyy said in an interview: "We understand that after Bakhmut they (Russian forces) could go further. They could go to Kramatorsk, they could go to Slovyansk, it would be open road for the Russians after Bakhmut to other towns in Ukraine, in the Donetsk direction."

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said in an analysis that if "Russian forces manage to secure Bakhmut they could then attempt renewed pushes toward one or both of Kostyantynivka or Slovyansk but would struggle with endemic personnel and equipment constraints."

Biden on Sunday announced a new military aid package for Ukraine during his meeting with Zelenskyy, saying the U.S. would provide ammunition and armored vehicles. On Friday, Biden announced his support for training Ukrainian pilots on U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets, a precursor to eventually providing those aircraft to Ukraine.

“We have Ukraine’s back and we’re not going anywhere,” Biden said.

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