Russia’s claim of victory in the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut suggests that the brutal urban combat that marked the deadliest battle of its war in Ukraine might be over. But what comes next is far from clear.
While Moscow is trumpeting a “Mission Accomplished” moment in its war, Ukraine — even as it insists Bakhmut has not completely fallen — sees an opening to seize the initiative from the city’s outskirts if Russian forces are no longer pressing forward inside the city’s center.
Russia’s capture of Bakhmut would be a powerful symbolic success for Moscow. It would represent the first Ukrainian city it has seized since Lysychansk last summer, and be a setback for Kyiv, which expended precious ammunition and sent some of its most capable forces to try to thwart Russia’s devastating monthslong assault on the city. Thousands of troops from both sides are believed to have been killed in nearly a year of intense fighting there.
But the city is now in ruins, and controlling it would not necessarily help Moscow toward its larger stated goal — conquering the entire eastern region of Donbas — now that Ukrainian troops have worn out Russian forces and broken through their defenses in some areas to the city’s north and south.
“You have to understand, there is nothing,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said of the razed city, once home to 80,000 people, during a news conference in Hiroshima, Japan, where he sought aid and weapons from the world’s wealthiest democracies.
“They destroyed everything,” Mr. Zelensky said. “There are no buildings. It’s a pity, it’s a tragedy, but for today, Bakhmut is only in our hearts. There is nothing on this space, just ground and a lot of dead Russians.”
Now that Russia has seemingly taken the city, it must hold it.
Ukraine, however, plans to make that proposition difficult by raining artillery on Russian forces occupying Bakhmut, according to Ukrainian officials. Military analysts say that if Moscow continues to send reinforcements to defend the city, that could weaken Russian forces’ ability to hold off a broader counteroffensive that Ukraine says it is about to begin.
A British defense intelligence assessment on Saturday said Moscow had redeployed “up to several battalions to reinforce” its forces in Bakhmut, calling the deployment “a notable commitment” for Russia’s heavily stretched combat forces in Ukraine.
Among the challenges for Russia are divining the intentions of Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, head of the Wagner private mercenary company, which spearheaded the urban fighting. Mr. Prigozhin on Saturday declared victory in Bakhmut and said his mercenaries would withdraw from the city by Thursday. But military analysts said it was unclear whether Mr. Prigozhin could pull out so abruptly along a hotly contested front line without dire consequences for the Russians in the city.
It also was unclear how much of the city Ukrainian forces still held and whether Russian reinforcements deployed toward Bakhmut would rotate in to replace Wagner troops or bolster Russia’s faltering defenses on the city’s outskirts.
In recent days, Russian forces clawing their way west through the city have fought through a final neighborhood of high-rise apartment blocks, reaching an expanse of garages, farmhouses and open fields to the west. The Ukrainian military said on Sunday it still held several buildings in that area.
But even as Kyiv’s forces stepped back from the block-by-block fighting, they brought in reinforcements to shore up rear positions, securing roads and supply lines west of Bakhmut. And they focused on attacking Russian positions to the north and south of the city. A battle on May 6 breached Russian lines south of the village of Ivanivske and forced Russian soldiers into a disorganized retreat.
Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, said on Sunday that Ukrainian forces had recently recaptured high ground on the city’s outskirts, and that those advances would “really complicate the enemy’s presence in Bakhmut.”
If Ukrainian forces can continue their counterattack, it would put Russia on the defensive across nearly all of the front line, which stretches for hundreds of miles. For months, Bakhmut has been among the few places where Russia was gaining ground in the war.
Ukraine’s military said on Sunday that it had launched an overnight strike on the Russian-occupied port city of Berdiansk, the latest attempt to target occupied territory in the country’s south ahead of a widely anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive. Vladimir Rogov, a Russian occupation official, said that a missile had fallen on the city’s outskirts but that there were no casualties, according to Russia’s TASS news agency.
Ukrainian commanders have said that their goal all along in Bakhmut was to pin down the Russian Army in a protracted fight, kill as many of its soldiers as possible and buy time for Ukraine to prepare and rearm — with Western weapons — for a wider counteroffensive.
A Russian capture of Bakhmut “will mean nothing, actually,” predicted Col. Serhiy Hrabsky, a commentator on the war for the Ukrainian news media. “The Russians have exhausted their offensive capabilities, and that is why they so desperately declare they have captured Bakhmut.”
Even as the Ukrainians sought to play down Russia’s successes, Russian state media on Sunday celebrated the purported capture of Bakhmut.
A segment on a leading morning newscast on Sunday compared the battle for Bakhmut to the Soviet Union’s major victories in World War II. A Russian fighter was shown saying he felt “probably the same emotions as our grandpas did in Berlin” as Russian forces swarmed the city at the end of World War II.
The anchor declared, “Mission accomplished.”
The state-run Channel 1 newscast cited statements by President Vladimir V. Putin and Russia’s Defense Ministry that gave Wagner partial credit for capturing the city. Channel 1 also featured footage of armed men described as Wagner fighters yelling, “Bakhmut is ours!”
But even as the newscast featured Bakhmut as its top story, one man went unmentioned: Mr. Prigozhin, the founder of Wagner and a close ally of Mr. Putin’s who has often been at odds with Russia’s military leadership.
The noticeable omission underscored the lengths Russia’s propaganda machine has been going to hide from the Russian people any sign of elite infighting or problems on the front line.
Sunday morning’s newscast showed extensive aerial footage of the destruction and desolation in Bakhmut but claimed that Ukrainian forces had destroyed their own city — an echo of Russia’s false narrative when it captured the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol a year ago.
“They weren’t able to hold on to the city,” a reporter on the ground in Bakhmut said, referring to Ukrainian forces. “So they are trying to raze it to the ground.”
Peter Baker contributed reported from Hiroshima, Japan, Anton Troianovski from Berlin and Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London.