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Russian forces claim to 'legally' control Bakhmut, but Ukraine says fighting is still raging

Ukrainian officials said fierce fighting was ongoing Monday in the heart of the eastern city that has become the focal point of the war.

Russian forces say they now effectively control Bakhmut, a claim that would represent a significant advance but was rejected by Ukraine, which said fierce fighting was ongoing Monday in the heart of the eastern city that has become the focal point of the war.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary group that has led much of Moscow's assault on the battered symbol of Ukrainian resistance, said his forces had "legally" captured the city after raising a flag above its administration building.

“Legally, Bakhmut is taken,” he said in a video posted to Telegram on Sunday night, though he conceded that Ukrainian soldiers remained in the western part of the city.

“We hoisted the Russian flag with the inscription “In good memory of Vladlen Tatarsky” and the flag of the PMC Wagner on the Bakhmut city administration building,” he said, referring to the pro-war blogger killed in a bombing attack.

But Ukrainian officials swiftly rejected the claims.

"Bakhmut is Ukrainian," said Andriy Yermak, the head of the presidential office. "Don’t pay attention on “victory” fake inventors. Not even close to the reality."

Local commanders were similarly dismissive, saying that clashes were still taking place around the city council building and elsewhere.

“They raised the flag over some kind of toilet. They attached it to the side of who knows what, hung their rag and said they had captured the city. Well, good, let them think they’ve taken it,” Serhiy Cherevatiy, spokesperson for the eastern military command, told Reuters.

Ukraine Russia Bakhmut
Ukrainian soldiers sit in a trench along the front line near Bakhmut on March 26. Libkos / AP

Neither a much-anticipated Ukrainian withdrawal nor a seemingly inevitable Russian victory has come to fruition after months of brutal fighting in the eastern industrial town. The grueling battle has seen both sides suffer heavy losses and much of the city cratered by the constant bombardments.

Moscow and Kyiv continue to double down even as supplying front-line troops with key ammunition and artillery has become increasingly challenging.

“Both sides have invested too much militarily and politically to let the city go,” said defense analyst Konrad Muzyka, the director of the Poland-based Rochan Consulting, which specializes in Russia and Belarus.

“Russian progress in Bakhmut has been very slow, but also steady.” Muzyka, who recently visited the area with his colleagues, told NBC News. “It is not blitzkrieg but the progress is clear,” he added.

Recent attacks show Moscow’s “determination” to capture Bakhmut despite fierce defense, he added, since every inch of territory gained boosts the Kremlin's hopes of capturing the surrounding region.

The city is in the northeastern part of Donetsk province, one half of Ukraine’s industrial Donbas heartland, which has become the central target of the Russian offensive. 

“It’s especially hot there today,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Sunday in his nightly video address, thanking his soldiers fighting in Bakhmut. 

The intense Russian assault on Bakhmut has left Ukrainian troops encircled in all directions, except the west.

“They continue to push Ukrainians out on all axes of their advance, in the south, east and north,” Muzyka said of the Russian forces.

Kyiv's military was not only battling Wagner troops, but also Russian paratroopers in a “tense” battle in Bakhmut, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Sunday in a Facebook post.

“Excessively high losses of personnel do not stop the enemy. Decisions are made emotionally,” she added.

A victory in Bakhmut would be Moscow’s first major success in almost a year but an impending spring counteroffensive by Kyiv, which officials have said could begin as early as this month, could complicate Russia’s supply efforts and divert attention away from the city.