A Russian mercenary leader is preparing to pull his hired fighters out of Bakhmut, handing over the captured Ukrainian city to Russia’s less skilled government troops.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner private army, says his soldiers will leave the city on Thursday and hand it over to the Russian military.
‘Until May 25, we will completely inspect it, create the necessary defense lines and hand it over to the military so that they can continue to work, and we ourselves will go to field camps,’ he said.
Bakhmut is likely to be again on the frontlines of the conflict, as Ukrainians lay the groundwork for a counter-offensive, raising the prospect that it could change hands once more if the regular Russian army is unable to repel Kyiv’s forces.
Russia’s state troops have been derided throughout the war as ill-disciplined and suffering from low morale, with bizarre punishments from commanders including throwing soldiers in grilled holes underground for drunkenness.
In the meantime, the Wagner group was heaped with praise by Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose forces had been targeting Bakhmut unsuccessfully for eight months, CNN reports.
Yevgeny Prigozhin (centre), head of the Wagner private army, says his troops will leave the city on Thursday and hand it over to the Russian military
This video grab taken from a shooting by AFPTV shows an aerial view of destructions during fighting in the city of Bakhmut in February
‘Vladimir Putin congratulates the Wagner assault detachments, as well as all units of the Russian Armed Forces, which confirmed the presence and closure of the flanks, on the completion of the operation to liberate Artemovsk [Bakhmut’s name during the Soviet era].’
Bakhmut is situated northeast of the Donetsk region, some 13 miles from the Luhansk region. It has been a stone’s throw from the frontlines of fighting since last summer.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky confirmed today that Russia has taken control of the city after a bloody eight-month battle by the Wagner private army, which has left it in ruins.
Mr Zelensky said he thought Ukraine had lost the city, but added: ‘You have to understand that there is nothing. They [the Russians] destroyed everything.’
‘For today, Bakhmut is only in our hearts,’ he said. ‘There is nothing in this place.’
Mr Zelensky was speaking alongside President Joe Biden at the G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan.
Russia’s defence ministry had said early on Sunday that forces of the Wagner private army, with the support of Russian troops, had seized Bakhmut.
The 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 fighting for Bakhmut was continuing.
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 fighting for Bakhmut was continuing.
Members of Wagner group were pictured waving a Russian national flag and Wagner Group’s flag on the rooftop of a damaged building in Bakhmut yesterday, as they declared victory over the city
Ukrainian servicemen fire a BM-21 Grad multiple launch rocket system towards Russian troops near Bakhmut on Friday
Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin (pictured centre) claimed his forces have full control Bakhmut – which Kyiv denies – in a video recorded in front of destroyed buildings as explosions are heard in the distance
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 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.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky (left) and President Joe Biden take part in a bilateral meeting during the G7 summit
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.
Bakhmut, located about 55 kilometers (34 miles) north of the Russian-held regional capital of Donetsk, had a prewar population of 80,000 and was an important industrial center, surrounded by salt and gypsum mines.
The city, which was named Artyomovsk after a Bolshevik revolutionary when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, also was known for its sparkling wine production in underground caves.
Its broad tree-lined avenues, lush parks and stately downtown with imposing late 19th-century mansions – all now reduced to a smoldering wasteland – made it a popular tourist destination.
When a separatist rebellion engulfed eastern Ukraine in 2014 weeks after Moscow’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, the rebels quickly won control of the city, only to lose it a few months later.
President Joe Biden puts an arm around Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky
Vladimir Putin (pictured) has congratulated Russia’s Wagner mercenary group and the national army on their claimed capture of Bakhmut
After Russia switched its focus to the Donbas following a botched attempt to seize Kyiv early in the February 2022 invasion, Moscow’s troops tried to take Bakhmut in August but were pushed back.
The fighting there abated in autumn as Russia was confronted with Ukrainian counteroffensives in the east and the south, but it resumed at full pace late last year. In January, Russia captured the salt-mining town of Soledar, just north of Bakhmut, and closed in on the city’s suburbs.
Intense Russian shelling targeted the city and nearby villages as Moscow waged a three-sided assault to try to finish off the resistance in what Ukrainians called ‘fortress Bakhmut.’
Mercenaries from Wagner spearheaded the Russian offensive. Prigozhin tried to use the battle for the city to expand his clout amid the tensions with the top Russian military leaders whom he harshly criticized.
‘We fought not only with the Ukrainian armed forces in Bakhmut. We fought the Russian bureaucracy, which threw sand in the wheels,’ Prigozhin said in the video on Saturday.
The relentless Russian artillery bombardment left few buildings intact amid ferocious house-to-house battles. Wagner fighters ‘marched on the bodies of their own soldiers’ according to Ukrainian officials. Both sides have spent ammunition at a rate unseen in any armed conflict for decades, firing thousands of rounds a day.
A shocking before and after of Bakhmut highlighting the devastation caused by the conflict
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has said that seizing the city would allow Russia to press its offensive farther into the Donetsk region, one of the four Ukrainian provinces that Moscow illegally annexed in September.
Zelensky had a busy schedule his first day at the G7 summit.
For Zelensky and Modi, it was their first in-person meeting since Russia invaded the Ukraine some 15 months ago.
India has close ties to Russia – it is a major purchaser of Russian weapons and Russia crude oil, which is helping to fund Putin’s war. And while Modi’s government has sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine, it has abstained from UN resolutions calling for Russia’s withdrawal and condemning the invasion.
Before he arrived at the G7, Zelensky stopped in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to address the Arab League Summit. In his remarks, he accused some Arab leaders of ignoring the horrors of Russia’s invasion of his country.
‘Unfortunately, there are some in the world and here, among you, who turn a blind eye to those cages and illegal annexations,’ he said, urging them to ‘take an honest look’ at the war.
Ahead of Zelensky’s arrival, Biden, facing pressure from Europe to help Ukraine end the conflict, agreed to allow European countries with F-16s to transfer some of the war planes to the embattled nation.
‘President Biden informed his G7 counterparts the United States will support the joint effort to train Ukrainian pilots on fourth generation fighter aircraft including F-16s,’ National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Saturday.
‘Over the past few months we and our allies and partners have really focused on providing Ukraine with the system’s weapons and training needs to be able to conduct effective offensive operations this spring,’ he said.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi
kraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky met with Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (left) and Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni (right) at the G7
President Zelensky met with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Sunday
President Volodymyr Zelensky travels in a motorcade as he arrives at the G7 summit
The plane carrying Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky makes its decent
Ukraine is planning a massive counter offensive to retake its territory and attempt to drive out Putin’s forces. But the delivery of F-16s – and the training to operate them – will take months.
‘I welcome the historic decision of the United States and @POTUS to support an international fighter jet coalition. This will greatly enhance our army in the sky,’ Zelensky wrote on Twitter.
Zelensky was in Europe this week to meet with leaders from France, Italy, the United Kingdom and Germany to shore up alliances and ask for more aid.
Early in the conflict Biden had resisted sending the advanced military fighter plans to Ukraine out of fears they would use it to strike into the heart of Russia, provoking the Kremlin to expand the conflict outside of Ukraine’s borders.
But several European countries have F-16s in their arsenals in wanted to send them to Kyiv but need American permission to give them to a third-party because of the advanced U.S. technology on the planes.
Sullivan argued ‘nothing has changed. Our approach to the provision of weapons, material, training to the Ukrainians has followed the exigencies of the conflict.’
‘Now that we have delivered everything we said we were going to deliver,’ he added, ‘we put the Ukrainians in a position to make progress on the battlefield through the counter offensive.’
President Zelensky with French President Emmanuel Macron
Japan roled out the red carpet to welcome Zelensky
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky walks through the corridor of the Grand Prince Hotel where the G7 summit is taking place
Zelensky flew to Hiroshima on a French plane
F-16 fighter jets have long topped Ukraine’s wishlist
The F-16 training will be done by U.S. personnel in the coming weeks. The timeline for that training remains unclear bu American officials previously estimated it could take up to 18 months.
‘As the training unfolds in the coming months, we will work with our allies to determine when planes will be delivered, who will be delivering them and how many,’ Sullivan said.
The U.S. Air Force has two F-16 air wings in Europe: the 31st Fighter Wing at the Aviano Air Base in Italy and the 52nd Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany. The U.S. also routinely sends F-16 fighters in and out of Europe on a rotational basis in smaller groups.
So far, Ukraine has been relying on much older MiG fighters, 27 of which have been given to them by Poland and Slovakia. Only a few European countries have a supply of F-16s, including the Netherlands which has 40 and Denmark which has 30, in addition to Poland and Norway.
F-16s have been at the top of Ukraine’s weapons wishlist since it was handed main battle tanks from the likes of the US, United Kingdom and Germany.
Western allies have taken even harsher measures against Russia in at attempt to pressure Putin to end the war. G7 leaders announced another round of sanctions on Friday, targeting Russia’s energy sector and military complex.
Moscow, in response, has upped its bombing campaign in Ukraine.