KYIV, Ukraine, May 21 (AP) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Sunday that Bakhmut was “only in our hearts,” hours after Russia’s defense ministry reported that forces of the Wagner private army, with the support of Russian troops, had seized the city in eastern Ukraine.
Speaking alongside U.S. President Joe Biden at the Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima, Japan, Zelenskyy said he believed the city had fallen, but added: “You have to understand that there is nothing,” saying of the Russians, “They destroyed everything.”
“For today, Bakhmut is only in our hearts,” he said. “There is nothing in this place.”
The Russian ministry statement on the Telegram channel came about eight hours after a similar claim by Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin. Ukrainian authorities at that time said that fighting for Bakhmut was continuing.
Zelenskyy’s comments came as Biden announced $375 million more in aid for Ukraine, which included more ammunition, artillery, and vehicles.
The eight-month battle for Bakhmut is the longest and probably most bloody of the conflict in Ukraine.
Analysts said that Russia’s victory in Bakhmut 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 Saturday evening. 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 “to defend against possible Ukrainian counterattacks.”
Using the city’s Soviet-era name, the Russian ministry said, “In the Artyomovsk tactical direction, the assault teams of the Wagner private military company with the support of artillery and aviation of the southern battlegroup has completed the liberation of the city of Artyomovsk.”
Russian state news agencies cited the Kremlin’s press service as saying President Vladimir Putin “congratulates the 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.”
In a video posted earlier on Telegram, Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin said the city came under complete Russian control at about midday Saturday. He spoke flanked by about a half dozen fighters, with ruined buildings in the background and explosions heard in the distance.
Fighting has raged in and around Bakhmut for more than eight months.
Russian forces 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 isn’t 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.
Zelenskyy 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 wouldn’t prove decisive to the outcome of the war.
Russian forces still face the enormous 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 the Donbas, Ukraine’s industrial heartland where a separatist uprising began in 2014 and which Moscow illegally annexed in September.