EXPLAINED: Zelensky Says ‘Bakhmut is Only in Our Hearts’ After Russian Claims of Capture

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Western analysts have said Russia’s claims – if true – are ‘purely symbolic’ and there are still major obstacles facing the Kremlin’s forces in the city.

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Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky attends a bilateral meeting with US President
Joe Biden during the G7 Leaders’ Summit in Hiroshima on May 21, 2023. Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP

President Zelensky said on Sunday there is “nothing left” of Bakhmut and the city exists “only in our hearts”, a day after Russian forces claimed the capture of the long-besieged city.

What does this mean?

The slightly cryptic comments were made at the G7 summit in Japan when Zelensky was asked if Ukrainian forces were holding on or if Russia had captured the city,

“I think no,” Zelensky said, adding “you have to understand there is nothing” there. “For today, Bakhmut is only in our hearts.”

Initially his comments were seen as confirmation that the city had fallen but Zelensky’s spokesman later denied the Ukrainian president had confirmed the fall of Bakhmut, simply saying: “The president denied the capture of Bakhmut.”

What exactly has Russia claimed?

On Saturday, the Russian defense ministry said: “As a result of offensive actions of the Wagner assault units, with the support of artillery and aviation of the ‘Southern’ unit, the liberation of the city of [Bakhmut] was completed.”

“Vladimir Putin congratulated the assault units of Wagner as well as all servicemen of units of the Russian armed forces who provided them with the necessary support and flank cover, on the completion of the operation to liberate” the city, the TASS news agency quoted a Kremlin statement as saying.

This came shortly after Wagner’s boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, released a video on Telegram declaring the capture of Bakhmut while standing alongside fighters holding Russian flags against a backdrop of ruins.

According to Prigozhin, Wagner fighters will search the city and prepare it so that it can be handed over to the Russian army. Wagner fighters themselves will withdraw to rest, he said.

“By May 25 we will completely examine (Bakhmut), create the necessary lines of defence and hand it to the military,” he said, adding: “We ourselves will go into field camps.”

That all sounds very straightforward

It does, but it’s unlikely to be as simple as Prigozhin is making out. While he was claiming the capture of the city on Saturday, Kyiv was insisting the fighting was continuing.

“Heavy fighting in Bakhmut. The situation is critical,” deputy defence minister Ganna Malyar posted on Telegram. She said Ukrainian troops were “holding the defence” in the city’s “Airplane area”.

“As of now, our defenders control certain industrial and infrastructure facilities in the area,” she said.

I thought Ukraine had been making advances in recent days?

They have and this makes the situation on the ground far more complicated than Prigozhin appears to be making out.

On Friday, Kyiv announced further territorial gains in the areas around Bakhmut and western analysts saying they have managed to “seize the tactical initiative.”

The Institute for the Study of War in its daily assessment on Saturday, said the last areas of the city claimed by Prigozhin “are not tactically or operationally significant.”

It added: “Prigozhin’s claimed victory over the remaining areas in Bakhmut is purely symbolic even if true.

“Their capture does not grant Russian forces operationally significant terrain to continue conducting offensive operations or any particularly strong position from which to defend against possible Ukrainian counterattacks.”

What about Prigozhin plan to withdraw and hand over to the Russian military?

This will be exceptionally difficult to accomplish. The ISW adds: “Withdrawal in contact with the enemy is an exceedingly difficult task that the Wagner Group’s forces are unlikely to perform well within Prigozhin’s five-day time frame.

“Ukrainian forces are still in Khromove and Ivanivske and are engaging Russian forces in and near Bakhmut. Ukrainian artillery can still target Russian forces in and around Bakhmut.”

Could Wagner become trapped?

It’s difficult to say but last week commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Oleksandr Syrskyi, made comments that suggest Wagner’s current position is one that could be favorable to Ukraine.

“Wagner’s men went into Bakhmut like rats into a mousetrap,” he said.

Is there anything else I need to know?

Prigozhin is still furious with Russian generals. In his “victory” video, he said: “The operation to capture Bakhmut – the Bakhmut meat grinder – lasted 224 days.

Moscow’s losses would have been far smaller if it was not for incompetent generals, he added.

“There was only Wagner here (in Bakhmut). We fought not only the Ukrainian army here, we fought Russian bureaucracy,” he said, blaming Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov for turning the offensive into “their own amusement.”


British Defence Intelligence Update Ukraine 21 May 2023

Chris York

Chris York
Chris is Kyiv Post’s Head of News and has over a decade of experience as a former senior editor and reporter at HuffPost UK. He has an MA in Conflict, Development, and Security and after a stint learning Russian, is now trying to forget it and learn Ukrainian instead.