Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Sunday that Russian forces weren't occupying Bakhmut, casting doubt on Moscow's claims that the eastern Ukrainian city has fallen.
Responding to a reporter’s question about the status of the city at the Group of Seven meeting in Hiroshima, Japan, Zelenskyy said: “Bakhmut is not occupied by the Russian Federation as of today”.
The fog of war made it impossible to confirm the situation on the ground in the invasion’s longest battle, and a series of comments from Ukrainian and Russian officials added confusion to the matter.
Zelenskyy’s response in English to a question earlier at the summit about the status of Bakhmut was interpreted by many as saying the city had fallen to Russian forces.
“For today, Bakhmut is only in our hearts. There is nothing in this place,” Zelenskyy said in those earlier comments, adding that the fight had left nothing in Bakhmut but a lot of “dead Russians”.
The eight-month battle for the city in eastern Ukraine is the longest and probably most bloody of the conflict in Ukraine.
Using the city's Soviet-era name, the Russian ministry on Saturday 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 had 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.
It is not 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 had previously 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 neighbouring Luhansk make up the Donbas, Ukraine's industrial heartland where a separatist uprising began in 2014 and which Moscow illegally annexed in September.
Bakhmut, located about 55 kilometres north of the Russian-held regional capital of Donetsk, had a prewar population of 80,000 and was an important industrial centre, surrounded by salt and gypsum mines.