President Putin has claimed a triumphant victory in Bakhmut after the head of Russia’s Wagner Group vowed today to transfer control of the devastated Ukrainian city to the Russian army by 1 June, writes Mattie Brignal.

Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Saturday that his mercenaries had seized the frontline Donetsk city, despite having “practically no” help from the Russian army. In a message on Telegram today, he said his forces had set up defensive lines to the city’s west ahead of the transfer.

Yet the true status of Bakhmut is hotly contested.

Ukraine has pushed back against Russian claims of victory, making clear that the battle for Bakhmut is far from over. Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, Hanna Mailar, today denied that Russian forces were in full control of the city, although Ukraine’s army has admitted that much of Bakhmut’s territory has been lost.  

President Volodymyr Zelensky insisted at the G7 summit in Japan on Sunday that the small eastern city was “not occupied by Russia.”

After a year of relentless bombing, Bakhmut is a cadaver of a city. By January this year, 60% of the buildings had been destroyed. Zelensky said photos of Hiroshima after the nuclear bomb fell reminded him of Bakhmut: “There is absolutely nothing alive, all the buildings are destroyed. Absolute, total destruction. There is nothing, there are no people.”

The scale of the investment both sides have made in the battle for the city is staggering. Vast quantities of ammunition have been expended, while US intelligence figures suggest Russia has suffered 100,000 casualties in and around Bakhmut since December last year alone – including 20,000 deaths. If accurate, it means around one in four of all Russia’s deployed troops (450,000) have been killed or injured in Bakhmut.  

According to Russian officials, some 14,000 to 20,000 Ukrainian soldiers have also been killed in the city, although Ukraine claims its forces are taking seven Russian lives for every Ukrainian life lost.

While the exact numbers are impossible to verify, it’s likely that the battle for the city has been the bloodiest since the Second World War.

The battle to control the narrative of Bakhmut is as intense as the fighting on the ground. It’s hard to cut through the fog of war, but if the Wagner Group has indeed taken Bakhmut, it would be Vladimir Putin’s first significant battlefield prize in 10 months – and hand Russia a valuable psychological advantage.

Control of the city won’t define the war on the ground. With the 600 miles of frontline mostly frozen for months, the ferocious fighting in Bakhmut has become the focus of media attention. But its importance has been mostly symbolic. Zelensky vowed in March that he would never let Bakhmut fall into Russian hands. He can’t be seen to break that promise.

When the spring offensive eventually comes, Bakhmut could well return to what it really is, at least in strategic terms – a hellish sideshow in a conflict that shows no sign of ending any time soon.

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