KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The owner of Russia’s Wagner Group military company claimed Wednesday that his forces have expanded their gains in the key Ukrainian stronghold of Bakhmut as fierce fighting continues in the war’s longest battle.
Yevgeny Prigozhin said Wagner forces have taken full control of the eastern part of Bakhmut. He claimed that they now control all districts east of the Bakhmutka River that crosses the city in the eastern Donetsk region. The center of Bakhmut is west of the river.
Ukrainian authorities have not commented on Prigozhin’s claim. The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank that closely monitors fighting in Ukraine, said in its latest analysis that “Russian forces likely captured the eastern part of Bakhmut, east of the Bakhmutka River, after a controlled Ukrainian withdrawal from Eastern Bachmut from March 7.”
The Wagner Group has led the Russian offensive in Bakhmut that took six months and reduced the city with a pre-war population of more than 70,000 to a smoldering wasteland.
Russian troops have surrounded the city from three sides, leaving only a narrow corridor to the west. The only highway in the west has been the target of Russian artillery fire, forcing the Ukrainian forces defending the city to rely increasingly on country roads, which are difficult to use before the ground dries up.
Ukrainian authorities have praised the defenders of the “Bakhmut fortress” and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Monday vowed not to withdraw from Bakhmut after presiding over a meeting with his top generals.
Western officials have stressed that even if Ukrainian troops eventually pull out of Bakhmut, its capture will not have any strategic significance or change the course of the conflict.
The Ukrainian army has already strengthened defense lines west of Bakhmut to block the Russian advance, including in the nearby town of Chasiv Yar, which sits on a hill a few kilometers west. Further west are Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, the heavily fortified Ukrainian strongholds in Donetsk.
For the Kremlin, the capture of Bakhmut is essential to achieving its stated goal of taking control of all of Donetsk, one of four Ukrainian regions that Moscow illegally annexed in September.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday that capturing Bakhmut would allow Russia to push its offensive deeper into the region.
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