KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Although Russia claims it has won control of Ukraine’s eastern city of Bakhmut after a grinding nine-month conflict in which tens of thousands of fighters have died, top Ukrainian military leaders say the battle is not over.
Ukrainian officials acknowledge they control only a small part of Bakhmut. Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Monday that Ukrainian troops hold some areas in its southwestern outskirts, while fighting continues for the strategic heights in the northern and southern parts of the suburbs.
“The offensive potential of the enemy has been significantly reduced. Huge losses have been inflicted on the enemy. We have gained time for certain actions, which will be revealed later,” Maliar said.
Ukraine says their fighters played a key role in their strategy of exhausting Russian forces. And they say their current positions surrounding Bakhmut will let them strike back inside the 400-year-old city.
“Despite the fact that we now control a small part of Bakhmut, the importance of its defense does not lose its relevance,” said Col.-Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, who commands Ukraine’s ground forces. “This gives us the opportunity to enter the city in case of a change in the situation. And it will definitely happen.”
The fog of war made it impossible to confirm the situation inside Bakhmut. Russia’s Defense Ministry said fighters of the Wagner private military contractor, backed by Russian troops, had seized the city. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the city was not being fully occupied.
In a video posted on Telegram, Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin said the city came under complete Russian control about midday Saturday, proclaiming it “completely taken” as he held a Russian flag with a group of at least nine masked fighters in body armor and heavy weapons.
Russian President Vladimir Putin badly needed a victory in Bakhmut, analysts say, especially after a winter offensive by his forces failed to take other cities and towns along the front.
But victory in Bakhmut does not necessarily bring Russia any closer to capturing the Donetsk region — Putin’s stated aim at the start of the invasion. Rather, it opens the way to more grinding battles toward Sloviansk or Kostiantynivka, 20 kilometers (12 miles) away, said Kateryna Stepanenko, a Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S.-based think tank.
For Ukraine, the important factor has been the high number of Russian casualties and sapping of their adversary’s morale for the the small patch of the 1,500-kilometer (932-mile) front line as Ukraine gears up for a major counteroffensive in the 15-month-old war.
“The enemy failed to surround Bakhmut. They lost part of the heights around the city. The continuing advance of our troops in the suburbs greatly complicates the enemy’s presence,” Maliar said. “Our troops have taken the city in a semi-encirclement, which gives us the opportunity to destroy the enemy.”
About 55 kilometers (34 miles) north of the Russian-held regional capital of Donetsk, Bakhmut was an important industrial center, surrounded by salt and gypsum mines and home to about 80,000 people before the war, in a country of more than 43 million.
The city, named Artyomovsk after a Bolshevik revolutionary when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, was known for its sparkling wine produced in underground caves. It was popular among tourists for its broad, tree-lined avenues, lush parks and stately downtown with imposing late 19th century mansions. All are now reduced to a smoldering wasteland.
Recent months have seen fierce fighting in Bakhmut’s urban center. But even now, Ukrainian forces are making significant advances near strategic roads through surrounding countryside, chipping away at Russia’s northern and southern flanks with the aim of encircling Wagner fighters inside the city.
Ukrainian military leaders say their resistance has been worthwhile because it limited Russia’s capabilities elsewhere and enabled Ukrainian advances.
“The main idea is to exhaust them, then to attack,” Ukrainian Col. Yevhen Mezhevikin, commander of a specialized group fighting in Bakhmut, said Thursday.
Russia deployed reinforcements to Bakhmut to replenish the lost northern and southern flanks and prevent more Ukrainian breakthroughs, according to Ukrainian officials and outside observers.
Ukraine’s tactical gains in the rural area outside Bakhmut could be more significant than they seem, some analysts say.
“It was almost like the Ukrainians just took advantage of the fact that, actually, the Russian lines were weak,” said Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews. “The Russian army has suffered such high losses and is so worn out around Bakhmut that ... it cannot go forward anymore.”
Ukrainian forces on the outskirts of Bakhmut and in the city bore relentless artillery attacks until a month ago. Then, Ukrainian forces positioned to the south saw their chance for a breakthrough after reconnaissance drones showed the southern Russian flank had gone on the defensive, Mezhevikin said.
After fierce fighting for weeks, Ukrainian units made their first advance in the vicinity of Bakhmut since it was invaded.
Nearly 20 square kilometers (8 square miles) of territory were recaptured, Maliar said in an interview last week. Hundreds of meters more were regained almost every day since, according to Serhii Cherevatyi, spokesman for Ukraine’s Operational Command East.
“Previously we were only holding the lines and didn’t let Russians advance further into our territory. What has happened now is our first advance (since the battle started),” Maliar said.
Satellite imagery shows infrastructure, apartment blocks and iconic buildings reduced to rubble.
Days before Russia announced it controlled the city, Ukrainian forces held only a handful of buildings amid constant Russian bombardment. Outnumbered and outgunned, they described nightmarish days.
Russia’s artillery dominance was so overwhelming, accompanied by continuous human waves of mercenaries, that defensive positions could not be held for long.
“The importance of our mission of staying in Bakhmut lies in distracting a significant enemy force,” said Taras Deiak, a commander of a special unit of a volunteer battalion. “We are paying a high price for this.”
The northern and southern flanks regained by Ukraine are located near two highways that lead to Chasiv Yar, a town 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Bakhmut, that are key logistics supply routes. One is dubbed the “road of life.”
Ukrainian forces on this road often came under fire from Russians on nearby strategic heights. Armored vehicles and pickup trucks heading toward the city to replenish Ukrainian troops were frequently destroyed.
With those high plains now under Ukrainian control, its forces have more breathing room.
“This will help us design new logistic chains to deliver ammunition in and evacuate the injured or killed boys,” said Deiak, speaking from inside Bakhmut on Thursday, two days before Russia claimed control of the city. “Now it is easier to deliver supplies, rotate troops, (carry out) evacuations.”
Danica Kirka in London contributed.