KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Sunday that Bakhmut is “only in the heart,” hours after Russia’s defense ministry reported that Wagner private army forces, backed by Russian troops, had captured the city in eastern Ukraine.
Speaking alongside US President Joe Biden at the Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima, Japan, Zelenskyy said the Russians had destroyed “everything.” “You have to understand that there is nothing,” he said.
“For now, Bakhmut is only in our hearts,” he said. “There is nothing in this place.”
The Russian ministry’s statement on the Telegram channel came about eight hours after a similar announcement by Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin. Ukrainian authorities at the time said fighting for Bakhmut was ongoing.
The eight-month battle for Bakhmut was the longest and probably the bloodiest of the conflict in Ukraine.
Zelenskyy’s comments came as Biden announced $375 million in additional aid for Ukraine, which includes more ammunition, artillery and vehicles.
“I thanked him for the significant financial assistance to (Ukraine) from (US),” Zelenskyy tweeted later.
Analysts say the Russian victory at Bakhmut is unlikely to change the course of the war.
The Russian takeover of the last remaining land in Bakhmut is “not tactically or operationally significant,” a Washington-based think tank said Saturday. The Institute for the Study of War said that control of these areas “does not provide Russian forces with significant terrain to continue conducting offensive operations,” or “to defend against possible Ukrainian counterattacks .”
Using the city’s Soviet-era name, the Russian ministry said, “In the tactical direction of Artyomovsk, the attack groups of the private military company Wagner with the support of artillery and aviation of the southern battlegroup were completed the liberation of the city of Artyomovsk.”
Russian state news agencies quoted the Kremlin press service as saying “President Vladimir Putin congratulates the Wagner assault detachments, as well as all servicemen of the Russian Armed Forces units , which provided them with the necessary support and flank protection, at the completion of the operation. to liberate Artyomovsk.”
In a video posted earlier on Telegram, Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin said the city was under complete Russian control by around noon on Saturday. He spoke to the side of about half a dozen fighters, with ruined buildings in the background and explosions heard in the distance.
Fighting raged in and around Bakhmut for more than eight months.
Russian forces will still face the enormous task of seizing the rest of the Donetsk region still under Ukrainian control, including several heavily fortified areas.
It is unclear which side paid the higher price in the battle for Bakhmut. Both Russia and Ukraine have suffered losses believed to be in the thousands, though no casualty figures have been disclosed.
Zelenskyy emphasized 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 Kyiv might be required to make. of unacceptable compromises.
Analysts said Bakhmut’s fall would be a blow to Ukraine and give Russia some tactical advantages but would not be decisive in the outcome of the war.
Russian forces still face the enormous task of seizing the rest of the Donetsk region under Ukrainian control, including some 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 was illegally annexed by Moscow in September.
Bakhmut, located about 55 kilometers (34 miles) north of the Russian-held regional capital of Donetsk, had a pre-war population of 80,000 and was an important industrial center, surrounded by salt mines and gypsum.
The city, named Artyomovsk after a Bolshevik revolutionary when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, is also known for producing its sparkling wine in underground caves. Wide tree-lined avenues, lush parks, and a grand downtown with imposing late 19th-century mansions — all now a smoldering wasteland — make 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, rebels quickly gained control of the city, only to lose it months later.
After Russia shifted its focus to the Donbas following a botched attempt to seize Kyiv early in the February 2022 invasion, Moscow troops tried to take Bakhmut in August but were pushed back.
Fighting there slowed in the fall as Russia faced Ukrainian counteroffensives in the east and south, but it resumed at full speed last year. In January, Russia captured the salt-mining town of Soledar, just north of Bakhmut, and closed in on the city’s suburbs.
A heavy Russian attack targeted the city and nearby villages as Moscow launched a three-pronged attack to try to end the resistance in what Ukrainians call “Bakhmut fortress.”
Mercenaries from Wagner led the Russian offensive. Prigozhin tried to use the battle for the city to expand his power amid tensions with Russia’s top military leaders whom he strongly criticized.
“We fought not only the Ukrainian armed forces in Bakhmut. We fought the Russian bureaucracy, which threw sand in the wheels,” Prigozhin said in the video on Saturday.
Relentless Russian artillery bombardment left few buildings intact amid fierce house-to-house fighting. Wagner fighters “marched over the bodies of their own soldiers” according to Ukrainian officials. Both sides expended ammunition at a rate not seen in any armed conflict for decades, firing thousands of rounds a day.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said seizing the city would allow Russia to continue its offensive in the Donetsk region, one of four Ukrainian provinces illegally annexed by Moscow in September.
Zeke Miller reports from Hiroshima, Japan.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine