After Moscow congratulated the Wagner private army and Russian troops for capturing Bakhmut, Ukraine stated on Sunday that its forces were still advancing around its outskirts in an effort to encircle the ruined eastern city.
If confirmed, Russia's claim that it has completely captured Bakhmut would signal the end of the longest and bloodiest battle of the 15-month war. President Putin praised both his regular troops and the Wagner contingent.
On Sunday, however, a high-ranking Ukrainian general stated that Kyiv's forces still controlled what he acknowledged was an "insignificant" portion of Bakhmut, which would enable them to enter the city if the situation changed.
General Oleksandr Syrskyi stated in a Telegram message that Ukrainian forces were advancing on Russian forces in the suburbs and closing in on a "tactical encirclement" of the 70,000-person city.
On Sunday, the commander of Ukraine's ground forces, Syrskyi, stated that he had visited the front-line positions near Bakhmut, where combat has raged for over nine months. Hanna Maliar, the Deputy Defense Minister of Ukraine, reiterated Syrskyi's claim that Ukrainian forces continued advancing along the city's flanks.
"Our forces have partially encircled the city, allowing us to destroy the enemy... the enemy must defend himself in the portion of the city he controls," Maliar said via Telegram.
Maliar stated that Ukrainian forces were still defending industrial and infrastructure facilities and had claimed a portion of the vantage points.
In the past twenty-four hours, the Russian offensive around Bakhmut has continued unabated, including airstrikes on the city and the village of Ivanivske on its western approaches, according to a statement by the Ukrainian General Staff.
In an audio message on Telegram, Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin announced that his group's mission had been accomplished and that his forces would withdraw from the conflict zone within days.
"Wagner did not capture any territory today." "We have captured every square centimeter of the territory we promised to capture," Prigozhin said. "As mentioned previously. We are turning over our positions to the (Russian) Defense Ministry and fleeing the conflict zone on May 25."
According to military analysts, Bakhmut has no strategic value; however, Moscow has stated that capturing it would be a stepping stone towards advancing further into the industrial region of Donbas, which it claims to have annexed from Ukraine.
Zelensky Compares Bakhmut to 'Ruined Hiroshima'
In the past week, Ukrainian forces have made their most rapid advances in six months on the northern and southern flanks of Bakhmut, with Russia admitting that its troops have suffered some setbacks.
Kyiv asserts that its objective was to lure Russian forces from elsewhere on the front into the city, inflicting heavy casualties, and weaken Moscow's defensive line elsewhere in preparation for a significant Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy compared the devastation of Bakhmut to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, by the United States during World War II. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden stated that Russia suffered over 100,000 casualties in Bakhmut.
"I'll be completely honest: photographs of ruined Hiroshima remind me of Bakhmut and other comparable communities. Sunday, as he attended a Group of Seven summits in the Japanese city, he stated, "There is no one left alive, and every building has been destroyed."
"As of today, the Russian Federation has not captured Bakhmut. This cannot be interpreted in multiple ways," he told reporters.
Zelenskiy stated in his nocturnal video address aboard an aircraft on Sunday, "The world hears our position. Defense, security guarantees, the restoration of our territories and all of our people, justice, and the implementation of our peace plan."
Taking Bakhmut, known by its Soviet-era name Artyomovsk, would be Moscow's first significant victory in the conflict in over ten months.
Wagner, which has recruited tens of thousands of inmates from Russian prisons, and the regular Russian military have grown further apart due to the conflict for Bakhmut. Since two weeks ago, Prigozhin has issued daily audio and video messages denouncing Russia's military leadership, frequently in profanity-laced outbursts.
At the G7 summit, the leaders of the world's wealthiest democracies said they would continue supporting Ukraine.
Zelenskiy, who met privately with Vice President Biden in Hiroshima, expressed confidence that Kyiv would receive F-16 fighter aircraft from the West after months of lobbying.
Biden stated that F-16s would not have aided Ukrainian forces in relation to Bakhmut but could "make a significant difference in terms of being able to deal with what's coming down the road."