Russia’s state media celebrated the purported capture of Bakhmut on Sunday, but a key leader of its monthslong assault against the city in eastern Ukraine was struggling to get credit.
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.” The anchor declared: “Mission accomplished.”
But even as the newscast, on state-run Channel 1, featured Bakhmut as its top story, one man went unmentioned: Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner mercenary force that lost thousands of fighters during months of frontal assaults on the city, and a vocal critic of Russia’s military leadership.
The noticeable omission underscored the lengths to which Russia’s propaganda machine has been going to hide any sign of elite infighting or problems on the front line from the Russian people.
While Ukraine’s military insists Bakhmut has not been lost, the Channel 1 newscast cited the statements late Saturday by President Vladimir V. Putin and the Russian Defense Ministry that both 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 the newscast did not show or mention Mr. Prigozhin, who was first to proclaim Bakhmut’s purported capture on Saturday in a video. In his announcement, Mr. Prigozhin stood against the backdrop of the ruined city and excoriated Russia’s top general and Russia’s defense minister for “turning the war into their personal entertainment.”
As the battle for Bakhmut dragged on and casualties on both sides mounted this year, Mr. Prigozhin frequently lashed out at the Russian military elite, claiming that they failed to provide his fighters with enough ammunition and failed to ensure that regular Russian troops stood their ground when attacked on Wagner’s flanks. In his announcement on Saturday, Mr. Prigozhin predicted that his criticism would not be shown on television.
“Two realities exist in our country,” Mr. Prigozhin said Saturday. “One is real, the other one is for television.”
In fact, Russian officials earlier this year were already directing state television talking heads not to “excessively promote” Mr. Prigozhin, The New York Times reported in February.
For nearly a year, Russian forces have pressed in on Bakhmut while at the same time laying waste — block by bloody block — to what had once been a vibrant salt-mining city of 70,000 people.
Sunday morning’s newscast showed extensive aerial footage of the destruction and desolation in Bakhmut but claimed that it was Ukrainian forces that 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.”