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Ukraine aims to encircle Putin's troops in Bakhmut after Russia claims victory

Moscow declared a triumphant victory in the eastern city over the weekend, but Kyiv signaled Monday that the battle might be far from over.
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Russia may have effectively captured the symbolic prize of Bakhmut, but in many ways the battle for the city might only just be beginning.

Moscow declared a triumphant victory in Bakhmut over the weekend, its first in nearly a year, with state media extolling its “liberation” and President Vladimir Putin promising “state rewards” to those who “distinguished” themselves in the war’s longest and bloodiest battle.

However, Putin’s troops — exhausted and depleted by the sort of fighting not seen in Europe since World War II — may struggle to push deeper into the eastern Donbas region while Kyiv’s military will seek to take advantage of recent gains by trying to encircle them, according to Ukrainian officials and Western military analysts.

'Mission accomplished'?

Russian state media headlines on Monday declared Bakhmut was already being de-mined after the country’s defense ministry and mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said Saturday that forces led by Wagner fighters had taken full control of the battered city.

Prigozhin posted images of his fighters raising flags over partially-destroyed buildings in the city, which has been left in ruins by months of conflict that has seen both sides suffer huge losses. 

The head of the Russian private army Wagner claims his forces have taken control of the city of Bakhmut after the longest and most grinding battle of the Russia-Ukraine war, but Ukrainian defense officials have denied it. In a video posted on Telegram, Prigozhin said the city came under complete Russian control at about midday Saturday.
Wagner Group members wave a Russian national and Wagner flag atop a damaged building in Bakhmut, Ukraine on Saturday.Prigozhin Press Service / AP

A news anchor on Russia’s Channel One called the city’s capture “an event of historic proportions” and “a mission accomplished,” at the top of a newscast Sunday afternoon, as Putin congratulated Wagner units and Russia’s regular army, despite weeks of bitter feuding between Prigozhin and Russia’s top military brass.

But the celebrations were dismissed in Kyiv, where officials insisted that the city was not completely under Russian control and that the battle was far from over.

“Despite the fact that we now control a small part of Bakhmut, the importance of its defense does not lose its relevance,” Oleksandr Syrskyi, who commands Ukraine’s ground forces, said Sunday. “We continue to advance on the flanks in the suburbs of Bakhmut and are actually approaching the capture of the city in a tactical encirclement,” he added.

Serhii Cherevaty, spokesman for Ukraine’s Eastern Group of Forces, also said late Sunday that its troops maintain control of “several buildings and fortifications in the southwestern part of the city.”

NBC News could not verify the claims from either side about the situation on the ground.

The conflicting messages may indicate that there are a number of things happening simultaneously and the battle for the city may not be over but rather entering a new phase, said Neil Melvin, the director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, or RUSI, a London-based think tank.

Wagner forces have concentrated in the central area of the city and ceded control of the flanks to reinforced troops from the regular Russian army in recent weeks, Melvin told NBC News, giving the mercenary fighters sufficient strength to seize basically all of the city.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s military appears to have withdrawn from its final positions in the center and concentrated on the flanks to the north and south, where it recently began pushing back Russian troops.

It now seems to be aiming to surround the city, which could allow it to cut off and then destroy the Wagner forces in the center, Melvin added.

“We continue to advance,” said Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar on Ukrainian TV Monday. "Due to the fact that we moved along the flanks from the north and south and occupied certain heights there, we made it very difficult for the enemy to stay in the city."

ImageUkrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Sunday, May 21, 2023 that Russian forces weren't occupying Bakhmut, casting doubt on Moscow's insistence that the eastern Ukrainian city had fallen.
Ukrainian soldiers fire a howitzer D-30 at the front-line near Bakhmut. Months of artillery battles have scarred the landscape of a city that had a pre-war population of around 80,000. Roman Chop / AP

The battle for Bakhmut has raged since last summer, severely bleeding each side’s reserves of troops and ammunition.

For Russia, the city represented a potential gateway to the rest of the eastern industrial region of the Donbas, while for Ukraine the defensive stand has become a way to wear down Russian forces and buy time for its widely-anticipated counteroffensive.

The battle has taken on huge symbolic value for both sides, but its strategic value to the Kremlin is likely eroded by Ukraine’s ability to prolong the fight and ensure the Russians could not advance beyond it and toward Putin’s goal of controlling the surrounding region.

In strategic terms, the Russians have “effective control” of Bakhmut, said Christopher Tuck, an expert in conflict and security at King’s College London. But Ukrainian forces still have a presence in a very small portion of the west of the city, he said, meaning that the Russians do not have “total control” over it.

“The differences between these two positions might seem small, but they do have political significance because the Russians are keen to portray Bakhmut as a victory, whilst Ukraine is keen to demonstrate that the fighting is still ongoing.”

Ukraine will want Moscow to feel that Bakhmut remains vulnerable, so the Russian military is forced to reinforce its troops there and take resources away from other areas of the lengthy front-line, potentially opening up opportunities elsewhere for Ukraine’s counteroffensive.

Ukrainian soldiers on the Bakhmut frontline in Donetsk
Ukrainian soldiers have pushed Russian forces back in areas around the city of Bakhmut in recent days.Vincenzo Circosta / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Prigozhin indicated Monday that he will pull back his fighters from the city later this week “for a break and a regrouping,” with regular Russian forces taking over.

While Ukraine may be signaling that it hopes to prolong the fight for Bakhmut, it is unlikely to commit substantial forces to try and take the city back, analysts said.

“In any case, the outcome in Bakhmut itself is likely in the short-term to be provisional, despite the considerable efforts made by both sides in fighting for it,” said Tuck.

“In the medium to long-term, what really matters will be the impact of Ukraine’s coming counteroffensive. This might render the current question of who controls Bakhmut largely irrelevant,” he added.