Has Russia Taken Ukraine's Bakhmut? Here's What We Know So Far

The Wagner Group claimed victory in the eastern city on Saturday.
Ukrainian soldiers ride on a BMP infantry fighting vehicle toward Bakhmut, on May 20, 2023.
Ukrainian soldiers ride on a BMP infantry fighting vehicle toward Bakhmut, on May 20, 2023.
SERGEY SHESTAK via Getty Images

Russian mercenaries have claimed victory in the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut – but their opponents say the battle isn’t over yet.

Ukraine has acknowledged the situation is “critical” although, importantly, “heavy fighting continues” – suggesting Russia has not yet seized the city completely.

Here’s what you need to know.

Why is Bakhmut so important?

The city, based in eastern Ukraine, in the Donetsk region, has little strategic value.

Russian invasion of Ukraine
Russian invasion of Ukraine
PA Graphics via PA Graphics/Press Association Images

However, for the last eight months, Russia and Ukraine have been fighting over it because of the symbolism attached to the city.

As it is based in the Donbas – the eastern area of Ukraine made up of Luhansk and Donetsk – Bakhmut is essential to Russia’s plan to supposedly “liberate” the Donbas through it’s so-called “Special Military Operation”.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has revised his war aims in recent months, scaling them back so it’s all about consolidating Russia’s land grabs in the east of Ukraine rather than taking the whole country.

He also illegally annexed the Donetsk (along with three other Ukrainian regions) back in September.

Seizing Bakhmut would mean he was a step closer to seizing the entire area. Moscow really needs a win now following around 10 months of knock-backs, and taking the eastern city could also significantly damage Ukraine’s morale.

The city is the site of the longest battle of the war so far – which is why Ukraine is so determined to fully reclaim it.

As News outlet Al Jazeera pointed out, “Bakhmut holds!” is a popular slogan on social media among Ukrainians.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has also warned this year that if Bakhmut fell, Russia might be able to ramp up international backing for a peace deal which would not be in Ukraine’s favour.

What has Russia said about taking Bakhmut?

The Wagner Group, paid mercenaries who fight for Russia but are under the control of oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, have been at the forefront of the Bakhmut battle since last year.

Prigozhin claimed victory in Bakhmut on Saturday by posting a video online.

He said: “Today, at 12 noon, Bakhmut was completely taken. We completely took the whole city, from house to house. The operation to capture Bakhmut – the Bakhmut meat grinder – lasted 224 days.”

Putin even congratulated the private troops, saying they had “liberated” the city.

What does Ukraine say?

Zelenskyy claimed during the G7 summit that Bakhmut is “not occupied” by Russian forces.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks during a press conference, following the conclusion of the G7 Summit Leaders' Meeting on May 21, 2023.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks during a press conference, following the conclusion of the G7 Summit Leaders' Meeting on May 21, 2023.
Pool via Getty Images

Speaking from Japan, he was reluctant to offer clear details – but said, as of Sunday, 21 May, the city was still in Ukrainian hands.

He added: “There are no two or three interpretations of these words.”

This clarification followed Zelenskyy’s previous comment that “today Bakhmut is only in our hearts” – prompting speculation that Russia had finally seized it.

The president also said Bakhmut was much like Hiroshima, the Japanese city targeted by an atomic bomb in World War 2, and would need a similar “reconstruction”.

“Now Hiroshima has rebuilt their city, and we dream of rebuilding our cities,” the Ukrainian president said.

By saying Bakhmut was “completely destroyed”, reports suggest Zelenskyy was implying a potential defeat of Ukrainian forces would be a pyrrhic victory for Moscow.

Ukrainian military sources also told the BBC that they still had control of a few buildings on the edges of the city.

Deputy defence minister Hanna Maliar posted on Telegram: “Heavy fighting in Bakhmut. The situation is critical.”

She added that Ukraine was “holding the defence” in the city’s “airplane area”, along with control over “certain industrial and infrastructure facilities in the are”.

Colonel General Oleksandr Syrsky, the commander of the Ground Forces of Ukraine, said that the troops are looking for a tactical encirclement of the city too.

Can any details be verified?

While a lot of detail is still unclear, researchers at the Institute for the Study of War appeared to support Syrsky’s claims about what was going on with the Ukrainian troops.

A ground report claimed that “geolocated footage” showed a Ukrainian brigade “striking” Russian force seven kilometres away from Bakhmut – and that Russian and Wagner flags are flying over residential buildings to the west of Bakhmut.

It said: “Wagner Group mercenaries likely secured the western administrative borders of Bakhmut City while Ukrainian forces are continuing to prioritise counterattacks on Bakhmut’s outskirts.”

However, it added that Ukrainian military officials seem to have tacitly acknowledged that “Russian forces have secured the rest of western and northwestern Bakhmut, if not all of it”, after admitting they control an “insignificant” part of the city.

Still, the researchers think this will not impact “ongoing Ukrainian counterattacks north or south of Bakhmut,” nor Ukraine’s communication lines around Bakhmut.

It also said the “exhausted Wagner forces” would need to reach these if it wanted to conduct further attacks.

ISW alleged that Russia will “need additional reinforcements” to hold Bakhmut and its flanks, too – which could come at the cost of other offensives.

What else do we need to know?

Bakhmut has been mostly controlled by Russian troops for some time, even if the city hasn’t fallen to Moscow completely.

Prigozhin has also complained about a lack of support from the Kremlin recently, suggesting that his troops do not have enough ammunition to cope.

He has claimed that the Wagner Group will leave Bakhmut altogether between May 25 and June 1.

As the Institute for the Study of War tweeted: “It is currently unclear if Prigozhin will actually withdraw his forces from Bakhmut, but some milbloggers [military bloggers] are speculating that Prigozhin will commit Wagner to a different ‘critical’ frontline at the end of the month.”


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